You and Robby sit in Robby’s messy dorm room and wash down the last of your wisdom-teeth codeine with Rolling Rock, while you watch a video from the sixties made for retarded girls about to hit puberty. You should be studying because it’s the week before finals, but Robby’s brother, who’s up at Johns Hopkins, discovered a cache of old sex-ed films in a closet somewhere in the public health library, and called Robby last night. Robby took a train to Baltimore this morning to get the film, missed his organic chemistry study session, and you transferred the film to video this afternoon. You and Robby spent hours in the audio-visual lab, trying to figure out the equipment, pissing off a group of overdriven MBA students who were videotaping a presentation about conflict resolution.
The sex ed for retards film is better than you hoped. It’s about menstruation, and the star is a Down’s Syndrome girl named Jill who asks everyone about periods. “Does Aunt Mary get a period? Does Daddy get a period?” The climax of the film is when Jill follows her older sister into the bathroom for a maxi-pad change. Jill’s sister pulls a bloody one out of her panties and straps on a fresh one with the little elastic belts they used back then. Her bush is clearly visible. You’re incredulous. It’s unruly. You and Robby rewind it twice and you’re sure you can see pink, what Robby calls her “roast beef curtain.” You can’t understand why they felt the need to show this. Jill helps her sister by wrapping the bloody maxi-pad in toilet paper and carefully placing it in the trash. There’s the menstrual blood. It’s bright, like cherry pie filling.
You imitate Jill’s voice, even though you know it’s cruel and that you shouldn’t. The codeine and beer make it easier. For the next few months, you use “Jill” as an adjective. Robby loses his keys and he’s Jill. Your phone gets cut off because you forget to pay your bill for two months, and you are totally Jill. You keep track, though, and each time you use “Jill” as an adjective, you have to walk the five flights of stairs in your dorm. It’s like a bank. You can walk the stairs before you use “Jill” as an adjective or after, but you can’t owe any stairs before something important, like your econ final or your father’s medical tests. If you do, you will bomb the test and your father will have cancer.
Robby is rarely Jill because he’s a genius. He will go on to place second in the 1990 College Jeopardy Tournament, losing to a horse-toothed chick from Rutgers because he won’t know some trivial bullshit about the Beatles’ manager. He’ll win a washer and dryer and five thousand. He’ll tell you that Alex Trebek wears thick makeup.
Two months after that, his sister will find him on the floor of the laundry room of their parents’ sprawling Nantucket house. He will be clutching a tin of shoe polish. His headphones will still be blaring De La Soul, he’ll be wearing your old lacrosse shorts, and he will have a bluish pallor. He will be dead.
The grief will take residence in your stomach and make it difficult for you to return to D.C. for your senior year. Your parents will say it’s okay if you want to take a semester off, think about things, see a few professionals. But you’ll return that fall, and when you realize no one on campus has even a vague sense of humor, no one is good at wasting time like Robby was, you’ll actually study and do well and graduate on time and stop using “Jill” as an adjective.
You take Paxil. Twenty milligrams per day. One pink oval pill before you go to bed. On the television commercials for Paxil, a woman can’t cope at work. A man is afraid to meet people at a party. They touch their foreheads to show inner turmoil. All the actors in the commercials are attractive, with smooth skin and nicely combed hair. Even though you feel the commercials are comically unrealistic, you know these pills have helped. You no longer have an anxious pang in your gut, you no longer suffer bouts of super can’t-get-out-of-bed depression, and you no longer count your steps or have to enter a room with your right foot and leave with your left. The nocturnal teeth grinding has ceased, and your jaw has stopped clicking. You can eat bagels again.
You could be a spokesperson for Paxil except that you’re a district marketing manager for Lilly, the company that produces Prozac. You tried to like Prozac, you tried really hard, but you couldn’t sleep, and after about a month, you started to look like your alcoholic grandfather, full purple bags under your bloodshot eyes. It was better than Desiprimine, though, the drug they put you on after college, which made you a constipated zombie and left you a legacy of hemorrhoids that flare up when you eat Mexican food or have mustard on a sandwich.
You keep your pills in your suit pocket because the airlines have lost your bags twice this year. Lost for good. A mad scramble for receipts, and several arguments with airline employees trained to detect when someone is lying. Your Paxil was in there, and you spent that first out-of-town meeting dizzy and nauseated from withdrawal until you had time to find a twenty-four-hour pharmacy. When you finally took the pill, about a day and a half late, you felt as if you could feel the happiness chemicals burrowing into the crinkles of your brain.
You sit in coach, and the woman seated next you, a big potato with dull brown hair, is chattering on about where you should eat in Indianapolis. You already told her that you’ve been to Indianapolis before, you are familiar with its restaurants, but she won’t shut up about a sports bar that she thinks you would love. “They have one room for football, one for basketball, and . . .”
But you are thinking about Amy. She’s your wife. Married four years, and you’re pretty sure that you hate her. The elaborate scene unfolds: Amy in an elevator, heading up to an abortion clinic in the sky, the one hundred and thirty-seventh floor, the cables snap, and she begins to fall, the bell chiming for each floor she passes, she rises like an astronaut, she is pinned against the ceiling, the bell chimes, faster and faster—ding ding ding ding ding—but Amy has plenty of time to know that she’s about to die. She has time to regret. She has time to think that she’s selfish and cruel. One of her shoes has come off. It floats below her. She wants it. She wants her shoe, a pointy Gucci sling-back, something a witch might wear to a barbecue, and she fights the G-force to reach for it, barely touching the stick heel with the tip of her fingernail before the crash. You take comfort in knowing that this animosity toward your wife and these vivid scenes can be controlled, perhaps with a simple increase in your Paxil dosage. From 20 mg to 40 mg.
You pull the Sky Mall catalog from the seat pocket. You flip to a page called ‘Successories’. Your ironic favorite item is a poster of a husky dog with the quotation: the attitude of the leader determines the speed of the pack. You wonder how your sales team would respond if you spouted something like that at your next meeting. You turn to the monotonous hag next to you who is still speaking and you say, “Quiet time.”
“Excuse me?” she mumbles. You notice her neck skin is loose—like she lost a significant amount of weight. Hundreds of pounds. Good for her.
“It’s quiet time,” you say. “Please abide by the rules.”
You can’t play kickball because they have already chosen teams and they’re in the fourth inning. Chris Zizza says you can, but Doug says no way. You wish you had done your math last night like you were supposed to and that Mrs. Campobello didn’t make you stay in at lunch until it was done, until now. You want to play second base and hang out with your teammates. There is safety in numbers. Thelma never comes over to the kickball game. You saw her this morning, so you know she’s here, somewhere, maybe over near the swings with her friends, or outside the science room playing Chinese jump rope and grunting like she does.
You have every reason to be afraid of Thelma. She is retarded and smells like your grandmother, like cigarette smoke and cleaning fluid. Her eyes are crazy; there is nothing behind them. She is a Metco kid, bussed in from Boston. She has freckles even though she is black. If she decides to get you, she will, and everyone will help her. Everyone will chase you. When they catch you, they will hold you down while she kisses you and licks you and squeezes your balls. Teachers never stop her.
Thelma caught you once in the beginning of the year. Patches of melted early-fall snow dotted the playground. Your back and hair were muddy when they finally let you up. You were crying and you couldn’t breathe. Thelma’s tongue felt bigger than it looked. She wasn’t seeing you. She was only seeing your mouth.
The Thelma attack returns with an unwelcome carnal immediacy that scares you into action. You jog off into the woods, back behind the janitor’s building, where you and your friends once found a dead cat—back when you had friends, before everyone didn’t think you were weird, before Margaret Hickey told everyone on the bus you had a boner when you really didn’t, which was a miracle because you often did get boners on the bouncy bus, especially in the morning. You wait for the bell to ring. You pee against a tree and are amazed to see steam rising from your piss. It doesn’t seem that cold out. You turn over a log and look for salamanders, but this log has been turned over many times before by many science classes, and nothing alive is under it.
Later in the year, four older boys will bring Thelma to this very spot in the woods. Rumors will fly. Thelma sucked all of their dicks. They poked her pussy with a stick. They fucked her. Rumors will escalate to such an extent that the principal will call an assembly where he tells the whole fourth, fifth, and sixth grade what really happened: Thelma brought some marijuana from Boston for the boys to try. Nothing sexual happened. Because you live in a community of rich, concerned parents, a few moms will take time off from shopping and planning meals to come to school and talk to each of the classes individually about drugs and sex. They will be trained by an educational psychologist for one afternoon before doing so. Doug’s mom is pretty, you will think—like the lady on the shampoo bottle: fluffy blonde hair and big eyes. She will field questions, along with your teacher, Mrs. Campobello, about marijuana and rumors you will have heard about Thelma. Kim Pond will ask what marijuana is. The word “marijuana” scares you and it will scare you then. You will be surprised that kids at your school smoke it or would want to. You will wonder if they are likely to go crazy and stab you with knives. As if Leonard Nimoy and killer bees and UFOs weren’t enough to worry about. You have heard a few things about Charles Manson and Helter Skelter. You are not allowed to watch the movie on TV. Your cousin Stephen has a Helter Skelter book, a thick floppy paperback, and in the middle there is a section of photographs. You looked at them once, saw Manson’s crazy eyes, the hippie girls who followed him, the victims, the messy crime scenes. You will never look at those photographs again, and when Stephen wants to play Helter Skelter, you will say you have a stomach ache. But you will fear—you’ll be sure—that if you don’t play Helter Skelter with Stephen, some day you will be murdered by drug-crazed psychos. After going inside, presumably to lie down, the fear consumes you, and you will change your mind and run outside and find Stephen and tell him yes, yes you will play Helter Skelter, of course. The game won’t be that scary. Stephen will yell, “There they are!” and you will both run the other way until he yells it again, and you turn around and run again. Over and over. For an hour or so. You will think he should call the game “There They Are” instead of “Helter Skelter.”
Your hotel in Indianapolis is a square. It looks like it should be part of an office park on a road with a name like “Service Lane West” or “Passway 102.” It edges a sad public university, a branch of Indiana State, or Purdue, or Indiana University. All the buildings on campus look like shipping and receiving centers. Peering out your window tonight, you see no students. The grass is brown and patchy under yellow lights. You are thankful that you went to a nice university with attractive buildings that weren’t built in this century. It’s March 30, and when you landed in Indianapolis three hours late at 5:03 p.m., the pilot told you it was eighteen degrees outside. The woman next to you broke the Quiet Time rule and hesitantly said, “A little colder than Los Angeles, huh?” Now you place your suitcase on the bed and question your decision to come to Indianapolis a few days early. It’s better than being at home with Amy, though, you promise yourself that.
Amy won’t look you in the eye when she tells you. You wonder if she would have even told you if you hadn’t asked. You would have eventually asked, noticed that she wasn’t getting bigger, noticed when September rolled around that you didn’t have a baby son or daughter. “There was either something wrong with the fetus, or something wrong with me,” she tells the table. She doesn’t use the word “baby” and you ask her why. “Fourteen weeks does not a baby make.” She seems more annoyed than sad. You want to puke. You want to smack Amy. You want to leave. In minutes, you will decide to go to Indianapolis a few days early. You wonder if it’s the Paxil that scrambled the genetic code in your sperm, made your baby a retard with its heart on the outside of its body. You know Amy is lying, that she aborted your baby. It’s a bit too convenient to have a miscarriage a week after the tests, which, she said, went well, and showed the baby to be in good health. Wrong. It showed something else, the worst, and she couldn’t handle it. “I would appreciate it,” she says as she walks out of the kitchen, “if you tell the truth and say I miscarried to anyone who cares, and keep your creepy paranoia to yourself.” You want to pick up the butter dish in front of you and hurl it at Amy. It would be nice to nail her in the back of the head, to get butter in her hair. You don’t even bother yelling at her. You long for the Midwest. Polite, wholesome people. Tough people. Hard workers. People who aren’t tan. You decide now that a few extra days in Indianapolis might do you some good. “I’m fine!” Amy yells from upstairs. “I’m fucking fine! Thanks for asking! Thanks for your fucking concern!”
You don’t remember downtown Indianapolis being all part of a giant mall. Skywalks stretch and snake from office buildings, to hotels, to restaurants, to department stores. A giant Habitrail. There’s a food court around every corner of every skywalk. It’s freezing outside, so you don’t mind that downtown is now a giant tangled mess of careless architecture, though you are aware that this sort of over-the-top retail has stripped Indianapolis of any individuality it may have once possessed. You recall it having individuality, but you can’t be sure.
You walk into Sam Goody Music and you’re greeted by a robotic voice: Welcome to Sam Goody. The source of the welcome is a deformed woman awkwardly perched in a wheelchair. When a customer walks in, she presses a button on a panel that sits in her lap: Welcome to Sam Goody. You don’t look closely at her. You can’t. Is it nice that Sam Goody has given her this job, the job of greeter? They could be using her. People will assume that Sam Goody is charitable company for employing the handicapped and the same people won’t think twice about spending $18.99 on a CD that they could get at Target for $11.99. You begin to flip through the common overpriced CDs, and, like every time you’re in a CD store, your bowels tell you to find a toilet fast.
You push through throngs of tanned kids just back from spring break. They wear faux retro T-shirts that advertise gas stations, pizza parlors, and sport teams that never existed. Where are their winter coats? As you walk through a food court on the way to the rest rooms, you notice that people in Indianapolis eat poorly—fried chicken, Cinnabons, barbecued ribs—and are generally overweight. You decide that you too will eat poorly this week, beginning with a cheeseburger after you finish in the bathroom.
The stall you have chosen is the cleanest you have ever been in. Leave it to good midwesterners to make their public rest rooms pleasant. The person who cleaned it most likely did so with a genuine smile and a firm sense of pride. There is no graffiti. The tile work is actually interesting, sort of southwestern influenced, navy and terra cotta. It doesn’t stink. You know you won’t catch anything from this toilet, so you sit right down and think you could stay here forever.
As you enjoy your cheeseburger and fries and onion rings and deep-fried mozzarella sticks in one of the food courts, you realize that you can find a deformed or mentally retarded person no matter where you look. You will always be able to do so. You look around until you spot a man with only one leg wheeling into Abercrombie & Fitch.
Amy is out. You don’t know where and you don’t care. It is only seven months into your marriage, you’re sitting on a leather couch that cost more than your last car, trying to relax in your new house in Rancho Palos Verdes that set you back seven hundred thousand because of its ocean view and good school district, and you don’t care where your wife is. It would be very easy for you to get in your car and drive three miles to the video store and pick out a porno, but the Paxil makes masturbation an arduous and often exasperating experience, so you opt to flip through the channels and eat an avocado sandwich.
You stop on a documentary about Down’s Syndrome kids whose parents want them to have plastic surgery to make them look as if they aren’t retarded. The idea repulses you. You decide the parents are doing it for themselves, not for their kids. You then wonder if Down’s Syndrome kids have a camaraderie. They do all look alike. You saw some in South America who looked like twins of ones you’ve seen in the U.S., only with darker skin. Jill with darker skin. If one sees another in the supermarket is there some sort of atavistic recognition and sympathetic attachment between them? You think, yes, and that these vile parents are robbing their kids of one the few special feelings they might have during their short lives. You are disgusted by the doctors who perform these surgeries, grossed out that someone even thought of doing it in the first place. You finish your sandwich and head to the video store.
When you return, you see Amy’s car in the driveway, so you turn around and take back the porno unwatched.
You slept really well last night. Ten solid hours. While the ugly patterned bedspread was made of an abrasive synthetic material, the mattress was perfect: soft with a hard center. The sleep makes coming early to Indianapolis worth it.
Other people from Lilly have begun to inhabit the hotel. You see them in the lobby and in the halls, men and women from all over the world, shades of skin ranging from deep black to nearly translucent. Some wear turbans. Others are in ill-fitted suits from the Third World. Bad eyewear from Eastern Europe. Good eyewear from Western Europe. Dots on foreheads. Accents. Almost everyone carries a black leather Lilly folder. Most smile. You smile. You don’t even want coffee this morning. You look forward to spending the day in the mall, perhaps catching a movie, eating poorly again.
You share a cab with Oswaldo, an Ecuadorian with 90210 sideburns. He wears a well-tailored suit. He’s in charge of launching the Prozac Weekly campaign in three South American countries.
“Ah, eh, Indy is pleasing to you, no?” he asks as you drive out of the hotel’s parking lot. His breath is visible.
The cold vinyl seat has drained all warmth from your ass. “I like it well enough,” you say. “Too cold.”
“I like it very much,” he says, grinning, looking through the cab’s window at the brown, freezing gloom.
You have been to Ecuador. You and Robby were there for three weeks between sophomore and junior years. You smoked a lot of pot. You got food poisoning and puked for two days in a hostel called the Magic Bean. A nice girl from Australia helped you, made you sip bottled water and take showers. You lost almost ten pounds in forty-eight hours. When you finally stopped puking, Robby brought you Gatorade and convinced you to get on a bus with him to a jungle town called Mindo. As hard as you try, you cannot remember much of the few days you spent in Mindo because you ate some psychedelic mushrooms. You visited a reptile zoo, you know that. You have a snapshot of you and Robby holding a giant boa—although, that may have been back in Quito. You remember crawling under a building in Mindo, finding a shoe in the mud, and hundreds of tiny black and orange frogs, the size of crickets, jumping all over you. Nothing else.
“Where are you from?” the cab driver suddenly asks.
You can’t tell if he’s asking you or Oswaldo, so you answer for the both of you. “I’m from Los Angeles and Oswaldo is from Quito, Ecuador.”
“You a Jew?” he asks you.
“A Jew from California?"
“I am a Jew,” you lie, wondering what he’s getting at.
“You look like a Jew,” he mumbles. “A Jew and a Mexican in my cab at the same time.” He breathes audibly through his nose.
“Oswaldo is from Ecuador, not Mexico,” you say. “You have a problem with us?” The cab driver is scaring you. His hair is thin and greasy. His face is pink. The back of his neck is cratered with acne scars.
“I have lots of problems!” he yells. You notice the letters dare tattooed across his red knuckles. The letters have faded into a dirty green color.
“What is happen?” Oswaldo asks you.
“El es un racista,” you tell Oswaldo, wondering if “racista” is even a Spanish word.
“Let us off at the gas station up there,” you tell the driver through a nervous lump in your throat.
But he doesn’t stop. Instead, he takes a right on a road, which you’re pretty sure isn’t leading to downtown. “Come on!” you yell. “Let us out!” You would just jump out of the cab at the next light if it weren’t for Oswaldo. You can’t leave him alone. You can’t tell him to jump out. You can’t remember the word for “jump” in Spanish.
“Where are we going to?” Oswaldo asks.
“I don’t know,” you say. “He is loco.”
Oswaldo laughs nervously.
The driver mumbles something about all Mexicans being sodomite faggots.
Your cell phone is charging at the hotel, sitting on the bathroom counter. You’re Jill for not taking it with you.
Is this it? Is this Nazi redneck it?
“Stop this cab!” you yell. You try to open the window, but it’s locked. You pound on it. “This is ridiculous!” Warehouses and run-down, winter-beaten homes. Dirt lots. A spray-painted, gutted-out bus. A few crows pecking at a shredded mattress in someone’s front yard. The buildings thin out. Not even a neighborhood. The sky is brown. The cab speeds ahead. Oswaldo prays aloud.
Think of strangling the driver from behind, or at least pulling his greasy hair. Imagine the cab crashing into one of the formidable trees that line the road. There are no seatbelts.
You could be honest with the driver, tell him you’re thirty-three, you’re not Jewish, you’re married but don’t like your wife who you think recently aborted your unborn child without consulting you because she found out it was defective, you take Paxil but work for Lilly, the company that keeps Indianapolis alive, although you wonder why they don’t move their world headquarters to a decent city. You could go on. You could tell him about the time you saw your grandmother in the hall in the middle of the night, a rubber tube hanging from her asshole like a tail. Tell him about the long-haired kid outside a T station in Boston, blasting White Snake on a boom box, playing air-guitar with a fucked-up arm. And speaking of fucked-up arms: that beggar kid in the bus station in Quito. His arm was more like a foot, his fingers all like baby toes. Ask the driver if he thinks the kid’s mom worked in some horrible chemical factory when she was pregnant. That same day, a guy carried a woman onto the bus, sat her down across the aisle from you and Robby. Her feet were on backwards, no shit. If she had looked down, she would have seen her heels, not her toes. Even Robby couldn’t come up with anything funny to say. You were both depressed until you reached your destination a few hours later. Can this driver think of anything to say about that? Did you hear the one about the lady with the backwards feet?
The driver stops the cab. “Get out,” he says. “Get out of my cab.” He unlocks the doors and you step onto the frozen dirt. He drives away, leaving you and Oswaldo among naked trees.
“I am confuse,” Oswaldo says. “It is cold.”
Oswaldo is handsome. A wonderful mixture of European and native Ecuadorian features, so perfect you want to cry. You know it’s all just a rush of chemicals in your brain that’s making you feel this way, a wave of relief that washes the right receptors and lights them up like Christmas trees with a perfect cocktail of neurotransmitters, but it’s real nonetheless, and you’re part of it and it’s part of you. Oswaldo smiles and looks around. You hug him; you have to. You bury your nose in his sideburn, breathe in his cologne and the cold air, hug him tighter. He hugs you back, and you feel like everything bad falls away.