Three Stories


What could possibly have happened to them? the mother said she’d asked the doctor. One minute, they’d been fine, the next, they wouldn’t wake up. Their brains had shut down, the woman said the doctor said. Their hearts were no longer pumping on their own. Even if they woke up, even if the doctor could get their brains working again, their hearts working again, there was likely to be serious brain damage, the woman said the doctor said. They wouldn’t grow up the way other children would. There would be a lot of therapy, a lot of extra care. It looked, the woman said the doctor said, like the girls had suffered an extreme case of heatstroke. It looked like they’d gotten overheated, so much so their bodies had shut down. This was not the sort of thing that just happened. It was a mistake, the woman explained; the two girls had somehow been left in the car overnight in record heat. Someone was supposed to get them out. The girls had been playing in the car, and the mother had told them to stop, and anyway, they knew it was dangerous to play in the car by themselves, the mother said. They didn’t stop, she told the police, who told the press. They didn’t stop playing in the car, the police told the press the mother had said, and so the mother decided to punish them by locking them in the car—they were, it seemed, too young to know how to unlock the car doors or else they were simply too scared of being punished to do so. Her own mother had once caught her smoking and had made her smoke the whole pack, the woman explained, one cigarette after the other. She knew people who spanked their children. She knew people who got into screaming fights with their children at Wal-Mart. How was this different? This wasn’t different. Really, it was just an accident. It was someone else’s fault, or else it was no one else’s fault. It was a thing that had just happened, the press reported the woman told the police. There was, the press reported, the case of the woman who had put her two boys in the car and then driven it into the lake; she’d felt stuck, police said she’d said, like her life wasn’t her own anymore. There was the story of the woman who’d drowned all five of her kids in the bathtub; postpartum depression, the press said her lawyers said her doctors said. There was the one about the woman who drowned her ten-month-old son and his five-year-old brother; afraid of being deported, the press said the woman’s neighbors said. And there were the women in Chicago and Omaha who’d put their babies in shopping bags and then thrown their babies out of high windows. All this was just in the last couple of years; things were always happening. On the news that night, and after the story about the woman and her children, the anchor introduced a reporter who was reporting on a piece of reporting done by a reporter for one of the nation’s big daily newspapers, a real scoop, it was said, detailing a list of seven words the current administration was seeking to have banned in all future government publications. Because spokespeople from the affected government agencies were officially denying the list’s existence, there was no interview to cut away to, and so the reporter simply read from the list in front of a federal courthouse—good enough, the producer had said; let’s roll. Footage of the reporter flubbing the word vulnerable would later be uploaded to the web and go viral. I’ve heard that, because the woman couldn’t bear to do it—but not because she was legally barred from doing it; in this country, it’s innocent until proven guilty—the woman’s husband had to tell the doctors to take their little girls off life-support. I’ve heard it’s what they would have wanted.

How the Husband and the Wife Parted Ways

This couple, husband and wife, were both in their own ways bad at leaving. The wife, who seemed at such moments not to know what to do with herself, had a habit of staying on long after she announced she and her husband were going, while her husband would often not have said goodbye until just before he stepped through the door, and would be content, in that moment, to wave to no one in particular or else say something forgettable, like “See you soon” or “Thanks for having us.” His wife would, meanwhile, have crossed the room to tell her sister they were leaving, and then, while her sister finished her conversation with her doctor friend, and as though she had changed her mind and were staying, this wife would stand there just a bit longer, even after the two women had hugged and promised to get lunch next week and reminded each other about their mother’s birthday. Then naturally the wife would see a coworker across the room, a woman she saw five days a week and who, she had complained to her husband, was condescending and stand-offish, and, feeling it would be rude not to at least say hello, would tell her sister and her doctor friend—who had already returned to their conversation—goodbye yet again. Her husband, trying to decide whether to just wait outside, and perhaps because he was, at that moment, thinking he’d wanted to have time for a run before work tomorrow or else just that he was tired, had the uncharitable thought that his wife really took far too long to say goodbye—a simple thing, he thought, the simplest of things—and that she also tended to linger long after she had said it because, at some level or in some way, he felt, she wanted people to beg her to stay. Across the room, telling her condescending coworker “We’re actually just getting ready to go. Great to see you!” this wife saw her husband, looking, as usual, terribly unhappy, and wondered what exactly his problem was. Why did he always seemed happiest to be leaving a place? The only thing that made him happier was to already be gone, the experience over. She thought that really it was that he liked his fantasy that he would be missed—liked, that is, the idea that someone, somewhere, was wondering what had happened to him, where he’d gone. These two warring tendencies, the husband’s and the wife’s, were at their worst in the mornings before each left for work, when the husband tended to leave before the wife could tell him what to get for dinner when he passed the store, unless, that is, it was a later shift he had that day, a morning when the wife had to leave first, a morning when she waited and waited to leave, sitting at the breakfast table with him, neither one talking, until long after she should have left for work. On such mornings, there was always a moment, after the husband had finally said, “Have a good day at work. Love you,” just as she was closing the door, when the wife felt that, if she didn’t answer, her husband would feel insulted, like she was making a point of not saying “I love you” back, but also thinking that if she stayed even one more second to say so, she would miss her bus and be forty minutes late. When she was at work, she realized, she never thought about her husband unless a coworker asked about him, and, in fact, that almost never happened.

Fascinating and Disgusting

The man’s post about being part of the demographic recently announced as the one most likely to commit suicide was, one of this man’s friends wrote, part of a pattern of behavior that could kindly be called attention-seeking. That is to say, this friend went on to write, that the post itself was designed to elicit what she called life-affirming responses from those seeing it, which responses the man in question would then no doubt criticize as blandly or blithely life-affirming—a locution the woman chose precisely because the man had used it in the past, always in dismissive and derogatory ways. He did this, she wrote, to make himself feel better about himself by making others feel worse about themselves. This was what he did. This man was posting in this way to generate precisely the response he claimed was most worthless and maliciously benign. Such behavior, the woman pointed out, was, on the face of it, absurd. In fact, the woman wrote, this man’s behavior online was, as she well knew, in marked contrast to his behavior in life—online, he tended to be combative, while in life, he was aloof, shy. The woman was, as it happened, writing a short essay on these two aspects of personality—combative online, aloof in person—claiming they were really two sides of the same coin. She was not, she emphasized, writing about a failed relationship—not at all—but, also, she would really prefer not to disclose the nature of her relationship with this man. Though the woman had no training in psychology apart from a freshman-year intro course (she’d done well—an A-, and this was back when an A- meant something, she wrote the editor), she considered herself an experienced observer of human behavior, and she was both fascinated and disgusted by the post and what she perceived as its intent. Furthermore, she wrote, she anticipated writing quite a bit more on the subject, and not only on that subject. She had already planned out chapters of an e-book on: Why Meeting People Online Is Risky and How to Do It Successfully; How to Conduct Oneself When Meeting Someone for the First Time that One Has Corresponded with Online; Proper Social Media Etiquette After a First Date; Honesty and Dating Profile Pictures; When Changing a “Relationship Status” Update Isn’t Mutual and What to Do About It; What Not to Say to a Manic Depressive; How to Get Out of a Gaslighting Relationship, and maybe as many as thirteen others (she was specific in the proposed number though she was also careful to note there was no significance in the choice of thirteen). Such a project would likely take her as long as a month, maybe even stretching into two! she wrote. It really was a fascinating and disgusting subject, and didn’t the editor, who hadn’t so far bothered to reply to her previous queries, agree? Perhaps there had been some miscommunication, she added. Perhaps he simply hadn’t gotten those previous queries. (She did not think it was worth mentioning that her proposed essay on #thedress hadn’t worked out—she’d finally clicked over to the picture after sending her proposal and saw it was blue; what was the big deal?) Perhaps the editor didn’t realize what exactly he was ignoring, the commercial potential of such work. Perhaps the editor felt the publication was somehow above such matters. Was there personal animus? Was there chauvinism? She didn’t like to accuse. Unlike her previous emails, this one got a response: “Out of the Office,” the subject line read. I know you’re not out of the office, she wrote, I’ve seen your posts. The chain of emails that followed would, one suspects, be rich in insight.  

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