by Will McIntosh
I passed a lithe cormorant of a woman trying on gas masks at a street kiosk. She was gazing intently into a little round mirror mounted on a telephone pole, wearing a cute round avocado-colored mask. I loved the way she moved, loved her librarian glasses and her buzz-cut. Was she too good looking for me? I wasn't sure.
The lanky beauty left my field of vision. I continued scanning, assessing each woman I passed as a potential girlfriend, labeling them as 'yes' or 'no' in a heartbeat. I couldn't help it. All of the other features of the world receded--all the beautiful crumbling architecture, the colorful street vendors, the black diesel stink in the air--all of it shrank into the background as I obsessively evaluated each woman I passed, testing my heart for fluttering, getting a sense of her from her walk, her expression, the bob of her breasts.
Not that I'd ever approach a woman on the street; I hated guys who did that. For me it served as some sort of rehearsal--practice for identifying my soulmate when she arrived. Or maybe it was a way to reassure myself that there were women in this city who could reignite that flame, if I could meet them.
And like a line of song stuck in my head, I thought of Deirdre, who had last ignited that flame, and felt a familiar stab of guilt. Small, childlike, fish-faced Deirdre.
What had she done with my photos?
There had been no cut-up pile greeting me in the doorway the day I broke up with her. No charred corners mixed with the ashes in the fireplace (showing a tantalizing hint of a sneaker; the ornament-laden branches of a Christmas tree...). They'd just been gone when I got home, all the digital backups deleted from my computer. Did she toss them in a dumpster? Did she still have them?
I missed them to my bones. I had no proof now, that I had a past, that I'd once been a child. I never would have guessed it would hurt so much to lose them. Evidently Deirdre had.
I slowed as I passed Jittery Joe's Coffee, hoping against hope to score a cup. The "No Coffee Today" sign still hung on the board outside, as it had for the past three weeks. And there was a new, smaller sign below it: "No Milk." I continued on, caffeine-free, toward my speed-date appointment.
I spied a sexy pair of legs in the crowd, strutting my way. I got a jolt when her face came into view. She'd been infected with that flesh-eating virus someone unleashed in Philly a few years back. One whole side of her face was caved in; the damage trailed down her neck, disappearing inside a silk blouse. I did my best to hold my smile when she glanced my way, but it felt stiff. Poor woman.
A busty black woman with dreadlocks and tribal scarring hurried past. I glanced back. Her ass was like a beachball, too big, but in an erotic sort of way.
There was a bamboo outbreak on thirty-ninth street. I stopped to watch. Street doctors were tearing up the pavement with jackhammers, circling the affected area, racing to set up rhizome barriers before the bamboo could spread. Four police officers with heat-rifles surrounded the perimeter, along with half a dozen of those little mechanical bodyguard rat-things, as if jumpy-jumps and terrorists were going to try to interrupt their little street cleaning operation. Real terrorists didn't give a shit about bamboo.
The asphalt cracked and popped. Some people couldn't stand the crumbling, crunching sound of bamboo growing through pavement, but I didn't mind it. Part of me rooted for the bamboo, the kudzu, the driftmoss, all the plant-viruses unleashed by angry adolescent biotechies looking for attention. I thought they were an improvement over concrete and asphalt. And they were harmless, childish mischief, when you put it in perspective. They didn't explode, or cause your organs to melt, or paralyze you. Or cause all the cats to die. Or require you to carry a gas mask.
I tapped my waist-pouch to make sure my fold-up gas mask was there, just like the government public service cartoon taught us.
“ID?” An acne-scarred man in combat fatigues barked at me as I turned the corner in front of the civil defense store. I didn't know who was who anymore. He could have been police, army, mafia.
There was a body lying nearby, half in the street, half on the sidewalk, one foot twisted at an odd angle. Vehicles were swerving to avoid it.
I stood still while the guy scanned my eyes with his little silver wand. It bleeped. He glanced at the readout on the screen clipped to his thick utility belt.
“Okay,” he said, waving me on.
When I reached the SpeedMatch outlet on 34th Street, I dawdled outside, pretending to tie my shoe on a bench. I ducked through the revolving door when no one was looking. I felt like such a loser going in there--much like I used to feel when I was eighteen, skulking into porn shops. It'd been three years since I'd last resorted to a dating service. I couldn't believe I was back.
It's humbling to be starting over from scratch at thirty-eight. How many more women would I have to tell all of my stories to--all of my funniest anecdotes, what music I like, how I got the scar on my throat? Three more? Eleven?
"I'm here for the ten o'clock," I said to the receptionist, who sported the thick makeup of a woman too young to realize that sometimes less is more.
She led me to my room, showed me how to download my vitals and bio-video from the boost I'd brought, helped me put on the VR equipment, then shut the door behind her. My palms were sweating.
The VR landscape was hackneyed but impressive: I was sitting in a burgundy reading chair on a slate patio, in the center of a beautiful formal garden. To my left, water tattered from a winged water nymph reaching toward the sky from the center of a fountain. A bed of perfect yellow tulips bobbed in a slight breeze on the other side. The garden was in a valley, surrounded by towering white mountain peaks; a waterfall burst from a cave in one mountain, crashing into a lake in perfect white-noise harmony with the fountain.
"Five minutes till your first date," a mellifluous female voice informed me from out of the sky. I wondered if women heard a man's voice.
"Mirror, please," I said, and checked to make sure I didn't have a piece of dandruff dangling from one of my eyebrows. Everything was shiny and perfect inside the VR environment except us daters--exact replication of what you had was all you got.
"Thank you." The mirror disappeared. Mirrors aren't good things to have around on blind dates; the process makes you self-conscious enough.
In the air to my left, my first date's vitals appeared, along with the lie-detector readout, currently flatlined. Her name was Maura (though that didn't mean much; lots of women didn't give their real names to minimize the lunatic stalker factor), she was 35, a physician, lived in Trenton. Liked Fuzz-Jazz and Postal music, and freerunning. I took a few deep breaths, readying myself for thirty-eight three-minute dates.
Maura materialized in the chair across the table. She had bushy brows and a pointy chin. Long thin nostrils that you couldn't help but see into when you looked at her. Kind of aristocratic looking. Interesting.
"Hi Jasper. I have a few questions that I like to ask, then if you want you can ask me questions." She talked fast, but with three minutes that was par.
"Sounds fine," I said. Suddenly my nose itched; I resisted scratching it. Scratching, or any sort of face-touching for that matter, doesn't convey the best first impression.
"How many times have you cheated on a wife or girlfriend?"
I gawked at her. She had to be joking. What kind of an opening question was that?
"Less than twelve," I finally said.
She looked at me the way my grade school teachers used to when I was being bad and I knew it.
"Is your salary statement accurate?"
"Sometimes." It wasn't like my salary was all that impressive. If I was going to lie, I would have done better than what was listed.
"Do you have any bizarre sexual interests?"
I knew her type. She'd had some bad dating experiences and now she focused more on what she _didn't_ want than what she did want. Avoidance dating. She was already angry with me for the thoughtless things I would potentially do if we dated.
When she finished I asked her a few questions: Have you ever stolen a shopping cart from a grocery store? What's your favorite Drowned Mermaids song? You don't know the Drowned Mermaids? Hmm. That could be a problem. I pretended to jot a note; she didn't seem to realize I was being sarcastic. Maura faded away. I scratched my nose with a vengeance.
Next was Victoria. She was too fat: big and boxy--a rectangle over disproportionately skinny legs. As we talked I chided myself for being shallow, then I snapped back at the chiding voice: attractiveness matters; it's not the only thing that matters, but it matters, and I'm not going to pretend it doesn't matter to satisfy my less-than-attractive female friends, who don't want it to matter. A girlfriend has to be reasonably attractive, or at least reasonably attractive to me. I find gangly women with overbites terribly attractive. Also nerdy women--shy, socially awkward librarian types really do it for me.
When Victoria faded I downloaded her bio-video out of courtesy. I probably wouldn't watch it, but she seemed nice and I didn't want to hurt her feelings. A few seconds later she downloaded mine as well.
Gizelle was Latina, cute as hell. She looked me up and down. Her lip curled. It was a very tiny curl, and it dropped right back into place, but over the years I'd developed a keen radar for rejection.
"Hello," she said rather stiffly.
"Hi," I said, "Look. I can see from your expression that I'm not your type." She didn't argue. "Instead of forcing you to pretend to be interested, why don't we just take it easy for a few minutes?"
She shrugged. "Okay." She called for a mirror and pulled a lipstick out of her bag.
I used the time to picture Deirdre stuffing every photo I owned down the sewer, a handful at a time.
There was me, getting on the bus for my first day of kindergarten. My sister Jilly, fitting her hand in Shirley Temple's handprint in Hollywood. Grandpa, proudly holding up a fish he'd caught. Me, sitting on the stoop outside our house in Trenton, the exact spot where I ate the sabotaged M&M when I was ten.
They never figured out how the jumpy-jumps got the bad M&M's into the bags, but I guess for people who can design M&M's that expand rapidly when the chocolate center come in contact with saliva (but not so rapidly that the expansion takes place in the victim's mouth), re-sealing bags wouldn't be a big deal. The M&M sabotage personified the sort of sadistic, brilliant showmanship and true randomness that has become the jumpy-jump trademark, and distinguishes them from your run-of-the-mill terrorist.
Jilly was there that day. I don't remember what we were doing, but I remember it was a green M&M. When I crunched it, it had a chalky texture, but it was still sweet and chocolaty, so I swallowed it.
It didn't go down--I could feel it wedge in my throat, like a pill when you don't swallow it quite right. I swallowed hard, but it still didn't go down, and now it felt like a bug was in my throat, moving around, pressing against the walls. Jilly asked if I was all right, and slapped my back.
I couldn't catch my breath--it was hard to inhale, and I was making this awful whistling sound. Jilly screamed for mom. Mom took one look at me and started screaming for help.
I don't remember the name of the nurse across the street who saved my life. She had frizzy blonde hair. She laid me on my back and stuck her finger down my throat, and said "Jesus Christ, what's in there? What did he eat?" Around that time my throat closed completely, and I lay on the stoop with tears rolling down my cheeks, staring up at their faces, suffocating.
And then something _shifted._ I knew I was going to die. I was certain. So I gave up, I stopped trying to breathe. I stared, open-mouthed, at my mom, then at Jilly, who was screaming my name. I wanted to tell her it was okay, that I wasn't scared any more.
"Get me a knife!" The nurse screamed from far away, and my mom went running, and I felt...fine. I would die, yes, but everything was all right nonetheless.
And as I watched the knife come down over my throat, felt the pinch, the warm blood rolling down my neck, still I couldn't find my fear. The nurse told me to breathe, but I didn't see any need, until she pushed hard on my chest and I had no choice, and a red spray shot out of the hole she'd cut, and I was breathing through my neck.
When I got home from the hospital I sat on the front porch and looked at the world. They thought I was in shock, but I wasn't. I was in ecstasy. It was as if every molecule in the world had been washed and made new, including the ones inside me. I watched a Styrofoam takeout box blow across the lawn, surprised and delighted by every bounce and twist it took. I inhaled the summer wind, my lungs crackling with an electrical charge. Everything was fine, I realized. Everything.
The feeling stayed with me. When I walked to the bus stop I bobbed like a cork on water. And even years later I could go and find the feeling inside me--I could scoop out a handful and warm myself over it when I needed to. It wasn't until I was almost an adult that I realized it was gone, that I'd drunk dry the last of the M&M feeling. Every so often I searched for it, but although I could remember what it had felt like, I couldn't recapture it. All I had was a photo of the stoop where it had happened. Until Deirdre took the photo, and I didn't even have that.
The next woman materialized, interrupting my reverie. She was in a wheelchair.
The first time I'd done this speed-dating thing, I'd figured the difficult part would be trying to seem clever and kind and confident, all in the space of three minutes. But the truly difficult part was masking disappointment and disinterest.
For the third time today, I struggled to keep a stiff smile pasted on my face as we danced through the 'nice to meet you's.'
From the rubbery, slight movement of greeting she made with her hand, Maya was a victim of Polio-X, that top 40 dial-a-virus that swept the nation in '22. She had some nerve, I thought, getting on a dating service, inflicting us with guilt for rejecting her because she had a disability. Then I got hold of my irrational lizard brain and realized how incredibly unfair that was. She wasn't twisting anyone's arm. But there was no way could I could be with her. A wheelchair was just too much baggage. I was not the sacrificing type, willing to wipe a woman's butt if that's what she needed. It just wasn't me. Maybe I'm not giving and self-sacrificing enough to ever have a truly successful relationship. At least I'm honest about it.
"So you're an economist?" I said, seeking a polite topic that would pass the time, while hopefully conveying that I thought she was interesting, but that I wasn't interested. "Any insights to offer on the current state of affairs? When do you think the market's going to turn around?"
"Wow, that's kind of a personal question, don't you think?" Her voice dripped sarcasm--she saw what I was doing, and was calling me on it.
I laughed uncomfortably.
"It's not going to turn around," she said. "It's going to get worse, and then it's going to collapse completely."
I laughed uncomfortably again.
"You think I'm kidding," she said.
"It's got to turn around eventually."
"No it doesn't," she said. "It didn't for the dinosaurs."
"Okay," I said. Next she'd probably tell me about the end of days, and ask if I'd made my peace with Jesus Christ.
"I can see you don't believe me," she said, gesturing toward the lie-detector, not unkindly.
"It's not a question of believing. I can see you believe what you're saying, and I'm sure you're good at what you do, but how sure can you be about something like this? Honestly?"
"Every Nobel Prize winning economist who's still alive is sure of it," she said. "The economy is slowly collapsing. Remember all those dire warnings about global warming, overpopulation, resource depletion, the rain forest, save the whales? Any of that ring a bell?"
"Uh huh," I said mildly. I'd evidently picked the wrong topic. How much time did I have left with her? One minute, forty-six seconds.
"They weren't kidding. Billions of people are going to die before it's over." She gestured at my lie-detector readout with her chin. I looked at it. Ninety-seven percent honesty. Not even a hint of exaggeration.
She had an interesting face. Big, wide mouth showing lots of teeth--what I'd always thought of as a shark-mouth--and scary light blue eyes, like see-through gossamer fabric draped over sky. If it wasn't for the wheelchair. Well, if it wasn't for the wheelchair she'd be out of my league. I suppose if I was okay with the wheelchair, it would be one of those reasonable tradeoffs that we all pretend don't really enter into love and relationships: she settles for a somewhat immature, big-nosed, ruddy-faced guy, and I got a woman who was more attractive than I could reasonably have hoped for, but in a wheelchair, with arms and legs that were mostly useless.
"Why aren't they warning people?" I asked, not really wanting to hear the answer, but needing to say something because I'd been silent for three or four seconds.
She laughed. "They've been shouting it from the rooftops for years! There was an article in the New York Times just a few weeks ago. Nobody listens to academics. Smart is passe."
It was a reasonable argument. And for the past ten years things had only gotten worse. Blackouts, war, fifty-seven varieties of terrorists, water shortages, plagues.
It reminded me of a story about frogs, that if you put them in an open pot of water and turned on the burner, they just sit there and boil to death, because they're not equipped to recognize and respond to gradual changes in water temperature. They could jump out at any time, but there never comes a time when their little brains judge it's time to jump. So they cook.
I looked into her earnest, translucent eyes, and tried on her hopeless, empty version of the future, filled with plagues and hunger, flies buzzing over corpses, thick-necked men with guns.
Could things really just keep getting worse? Could the economy really collapse? Now I wasn't sure.
"This could be terrible," was all I could think to say.
She checked the readout, softly nodded agreement. "I'm sorry I dumped this in your lap. It's not why we're here. But you asked."
She took a deep breath, and smiled at me, showing all those teeth.
"Actually, I think what you asked for was financial advice," she said. "Put all of your money in ammo."
I laughed, and for a moment I thought _maybe_. There was something about her that gave me a warm, almost nostalgic feeling.
We sat in silence, listening to the patter of the fountain.
"So," she said, clearing her throat. "Know any jokes?"
I laughed. "Yeah. There was this guy who could be kind of a jerk..."
Maya faded away, which was fortunate, because I didn't know how the joke ended.
A new profile came up. It was hard for me to concentrate on it. Danielle, 31, Energy Consultant (whatever the hell that meant), a daughter, twelve years old. Widow. I wanted time to think.
Danielle materialized across the table.
"Jasper, so nice to meet you!" she said, wobbling her head enthusiastically. She was very bubbly, attractive in an Italian sort of way. Really nice lips.
I tried unsuccessfully to keep up with her enthusiasm, and she didn't seem to notice that I was speaking from inside a black funk. She asked about my job, I asked about hers. She dropped some flirtatious lines that I fumbled--I sucked at flirting even on my best days. I wondered how her husband had died.
When I was young I'd taken for granted that, while there might be intermittent wars, disasters, economic downturns, overall things would remain about the same. But people had always inflicted suffering on other people, pretty much unceasingly, since the beginning of history. So as better ways to inflict suffering were developed, of course more suffering would be inflicted. Once biotechnology advanced to the point where a bright amateur could devise and release plagues on a shoestring budget, of course some would.
And all of a sudden it seemed obvious. I was living through an apocalypse. I was at a dating service in the middle of a slow apocalypse. Things weren't going to get better like the government said, they were going to keep getting worse.
Danielle told me that she'd really enjoyed meeting me; I said me too, although I had no idea whether I'd enjoyed meeting her or not. There was a song spinning in my head now, some really old thing about how when the world was running down, make the best of what's still around. It's funny how apropos songs find their way into your head without you realizing.
As Danielle faded, I looked at the water nymph stretching toward the sky, the plume of water pouring from her mouth. Her wings were too small for her body, giving the impression that if she were to fly, it would be a strenuous ordeal--not the soaring freedom of a gliding eagle, but the mad flapping of a fruit bat.
The next few speed-dates went by in a fog. There was Savita, a tiny Indian woman with big doe-eyes and long black hair that she draped over one shoulder the way Indian women do. Keira, who had raccoon shadows under her eyes. I struggled to hear them over the winding-down of the world and the sound of tearing photos.
Then came Emily, who made bad jokes and oozed desperation.
Most people can't stand being single. I see friends get divorced, then immediately implement the "best available" strategy, desperately seeking the most viable single person they can find in the course of, say, three months, and marrying that person. They can't stand the idea of not being with someone. It's like the light is too bright. They race to the nearest shade.
When you're unattached, you live life closer to the edge. A partner gives you a sense of security, and I think it can lead to complacency, to life-laziness, if you're not careful. You don't feel the need to live vividly. Being single means there's no safety net. It's riskier. If you lose a leg stepping on a street-mine, you won't have a wife to wheel you around. If you drink milk laced with clotting factor and have a stroke, you won't have a wife to wipe the drool off your chin.
The next woman's name was Bodil Gustavson. Thirty-three, artist. She materialized. My heart started to pound slow and hard.
It was Deirdre. Jesus Christ, it was Deirdre.
"Oh, this is going to be good," she said. She was sucking on a green lollipop. It brought back images that I quickly shoved aside.
I'd met Deirdre at an art opening at NYU, an MFA exit show that my professor friend Cuddy invited me to. Deirdre was an artist of sorts, but she wasn't a faculty member or a student--more of an art department groupie. She was wearing six or seven neck rings that accentuated her ostrich-neck, and a black skin-tight leotard that accentuated her enormous breasts.
Was that what really attracted me to her? Could all the malarkey about that ineffable "spark" between people be reduced to one shallow, primordial characteristic, and we just don't want to admit it to ourselves? If Deirdre had been as flat as my uncle Ted, would that electric butterfly have still fluttered through all of my major organs when I saw her?
She had a mind like jet-fuel, bulging eyes, cute little hands that were always fidgeting. I could tell she was damaged goods, but who wasn't, after everything that's happened? She had a childlike quality that melted me like a creamsickle on a July sidewalk.
I'd started to worry when she showed me her collection of 911 recordings. She had thousands of them, catalogued by type of emergency. She played me some of her favorites--people screaming into the phone, people dying into the phone. She had recordings of six year old kids telling the 911 operator that mommy's face had turned blue and foam was coming out of her mouth, and women with numb voices saying they'd just been gang-raped by intruders. She said it was a new kind of art. Seemed to me it was a very old kind.
"So tell me--Jasper, is it?--what are you looking for in a woman?" she said, pointing the lollipop at me.
"What did you do with my photos?"
I'd called the police, but they'd said petty theft was no longer a prosecutable crime. They had to prioritize their resources. When the world was running down, you had to cut corners.
"Fuck you, Jasper. You over me already? I thought you said you were going to need at least six months before you'd even think about dating again."
"It was easier than I expected to move on, after you stole from me and all."
The day I broke up with her, I'd been shocked by the hatred Deirdre could express with her eyes. She gave me the same razor-glare now.
"So tell me, do you miss these?" She pulled up the conservative floral-patterned turtleneck shirt she was wearing and shook her breasts at me. I drank them in like a heroin addict welcoming the needle.
"Do you still have my photos? What did you do with them?" I asked, my eyes darting between her face and her puckered, erect, pink nipples.
She dropped her shirt, smoothed it back into place.
"All those pepper seeds we planted on the fire escape came up," she said. "Red ones and green ones and purple ones...they're pretty. I can't remember which are the really hot ones, so I'm afraid to eat any."
That had been a good day, planting peppers, strips of sunlight filtering between the slats of the fire escape stairs.
And for the briefest instant, I considered getting back on the horse and riding the chaos that was life with Deirdre, surrendering to her dark charm, allowing my personal life to mirror the violence that was all around me. If nothing else, I could stop feeling guilty for dumping her.
As soon as I sleep with a woman I feel responsible for her happiness. Pretty much for the rest of my life. I've no idea why that is. Two or three years of therapy would probably uncover the reasons.
I thought of the 911 collection, of her complete lack of distress as she played calls for me. It was a soothing methadone that killed thoughts of reconciliation.
"I'm sorry," I said.
And Deirdre was gone.
I downloaded her bio-vid. I couldn't resist. How would Deirdre present herself to a prospective date? She had a 360-degree video recorder running almost all the time (for art's sake, of course), so she had recordings of most of her adult life to choose from. Would it be raunchy sex scenes? That awful hostage incident in her apartment building? Was I in it?
I couldn't wait--I played it during the sixty second break before my next date.
It opened with an eleven or twelve year-old Deirdre squatting in a little garden on the side of a garage, a wood pile in the background. She pulled a big red tomato and held it up, grinning. The scene drifted into another: An eight year-old Deirdre sitting cross-legged on a hardwood floor in pajamas, working on a puzzle, pieces spread all around her. Then Deirdre buried in Christmas gifts and torn wrapping paper, sitting beside my sister, Jilly, in front of our tree, both of them grinning wildly. Deirdre, getting on my school bus on the first day of kindergarten, waving goodbye to my mother. Pedaling a big three-wheeled bike, my cousin Jerome standing in the big basket on the back, his hands on her shoulders. On vacation with my family in Puerto Rico, sunburnt in a restaurant with half a dozen leis around her neck. Sitting on the porch of my childhood home, before the tornado carried half of it away.
It was beautifully done, brief moment drifting into brief moment, all of them happy, nostalgic, all of them scenes adapted from my photos, with Deirdre in my place.
I cried as I watched. It was so pathetic. My heart broke for her. Suddenly I wished I could give her some of that childhood--that garden, that puzzle, that vacation, instead of whatever it was she'd really gotten. What had she gotten?
I didn't like to imagine what she'd gotten. I'd once asked her about the little scar under her chin, and she said it came from the button-eye on her teddy bear, when her stepfather hit her with it.
Maybe she was actually doing well, given the memories she was trying to keep crammed into the basement of her mind. I don't know.
As the images faded to black, I thought again of my conversation with the wheelchair woman, whatever her name had been--Maya. There would be no more childhoods like that for anyone, not when a kid had to carry a gas mask, pass through security checkpoints, run from a hungry stray dog out of fear that someone had surgically implanted a bomb in it, then trained it to find crowds of people.
A lovely red-haired woman materialized. I was a wet, sobbing mess. I wiped my eyes. She tried not to notice.
"I'm sorry," I said, "I'm not feeling very well. I'm going to discontinue. It's nothing to do with you."
I terminated my session.
The room seemed dingy and scuffed after the virtual garden. I went on crying, startled by the unfamiliar guttural sound my voice made. I felt my hope for a better tomorrow, for blue skies and a button-nosed girlfriend, slough off like dead skin, leaving me pink and raw.
The selection screen dropped down, startling me. For a long time I just stared at the little pictures of all the women I'd met. Then I started tapping profiles. I didn't look at any of their bio-vids, I just started tapping away at the women I would be interested in dating. Danielle, the Italian happiness-machine; Savita, the Indian princess; three, four, five others.
I hesitated at wheelchair woman.
I sniffed, wiped my nose on my sleeve, stared at her smiling picture.
I felt I had a connection to her. She was my sensei--she'd whapped me with a stick, and I'd awakened to the truth. I tapped her profile. What the hell.
Then I came to Deirdre's profile.
I didn't tap it, and my tape of neurotic Deirdre-thoughts didn't start playing. I felt a warm sadness, that was all.
I read somewhere that we choose to date people for reasons that are lost in our personal histories, and we keep making the same choices--the same mistakes--till we figure out why.
The Civil Defense alarm went off while I was walking home. I pulled out my gas mask and flipped it over my nose and mouth in one deft motion, a gunslinger fast on the draw. People raced indoors--their masks (in a wide variety of colors and styles) and their tight, hunched shoulders made them look like strange chimps.
Six boys in red brick camouflage ran by clutching short square weapons that swung from their fists like lunchboxes. I stepped out of their way. Shit, they were recruiting them younger and younger.
I walked on, enjoying the sun on my face, the light afternoon breeze. I realized that I felt light. I took a deep, easy breath. It felt like adhesions that I hadn't even been aware of had torn free. I hadn't felt like this in a very long time, but I recognized the feeling immediately. It was the M&M feeling.
I fished my phone out of one pocket, the printout of phone numbers for my speed date matches out of another.
"That was quick," Maya said.
"I don't think I can handle the wheelchair; I want to be honest about that and I hope it doesn't hurt your feelings," I said. The honking of the alarm went on in the background.
"Okay. Is that what you called to tell me?"
"I just don't want to waste your time. I don't want to hurt anybody. I--"
I wanted to tell her that the world was fleeting and beautiful. I wanted to tell her that the white windmills on the roofs of the exhaust-blackened buildings were all turning in unison, and that somehow she was responsible for me seeing this.
"I'd like to ask you to spend some of your time with me. If you give me some of your time, your precious time, I won't waste it."
She didn't answer. I heard a sniffle and thought she might be crying.
"I'm good at that part--the now part," I added.
"All right." I was right, she was crying. It sounded like she was wiping her nose with a tissue. Then I realized that wasn't possible.
It occurred to me that Maya's bout with Polio-X could have been like my M&M experience. She seemed to get what I was saying.
"I have trouble with the 'till death do us part' part."
to say how a life is supposed to go?" She said. Yes,
that was true. Who's to say?
From our seats in the upper deck the Phillies players looked like tissues dropped in the grass, yet it was so quiet I could hear the shortstop scuff his foot on the infield dirt, smoothing an invisible divot.
I fished for a peanut. Even the crackle of the cellophane bag seemed loud, as if we were in a movie theater. I half-expected someone to shush me as I cracked the peanut under my thumb, peeled off the top half of the shell, popped one red-skinned peanut into my mouth, reached over and fed the second to Maya. She closed her lips over my fingers, grinned when I glanced over at her.
The pitcher wound, threw a high fastball. The lanky batter swung and missed, and the inning was over. No one clapped.
The Mets took the field, and the pitcher began his warmup tosses.
"Whatever's in the atmosphere, it sure makes the sunsets pretty," Maya said.
"Mmm," I said. The sun was setting over the left field fence; the clouds were a gorgeous pastel of pink, peach, indigo, violet.
On the first pitch the Philly batter yanked the ball into the right field corner. The right fielder took a few listless steps after it, then gave up. He squatted on his haunches and watched it roll. He covered his face in his hands as the ball rolled to a stop on the warning track. The center fielder trotted over to him, put a hand on his shoulder, said something to him. The right fielder shook his head.
The batter trotted to second base and stopped, probably figuring that's where he would've ended up if the play had been made. Winning didn't mean as much with so many people dying.
I fished around in my pack and pulled out a camera, snapped a photo of Maya.
"Now let me take one of you," Maya said. I was starting to get used to her paralysis humor.
I smiled big and pointed the camera at myself--
Over the left field wall, there was a flash, and a hot boom. People in the stands screamed, leapt to their feet. The ballplayers sprinted for the dugouts, looking back over their shoulders at the explosion, which was a good twenty blocks away. It looked like an expanding rainbow of colors, like ripples in a candy pond.
I looked at Maya. She smiled, lifted her fingers as much as she was able. I took her hand in mine.
It could be anything--chemical, biological, nuclear, or an accident at a crayon factory.
We waited. I was not afraid.