A Positive Choice – Chris Morgan
May 31, 2022
Jared knew he had feelings for Diana by how he’d be struck dead in the chest, as if by an unseen fist, at the mere inference of her corporeal self, however abstract or indirect that inference was. The mention of her name by a mutual friend or the sight of one her social media handles “liking” a post, let alone a post of her own on any one of the platforms she used, provoked this reaction. It was especially severe in her presence, where the impact would reverberate in a mini-shockwave that gave his muscles the density and limberness of wet clay and caused his linguistic faculties to all but vanish. If Diana ever felt the same way before they started formally dating, she was graceful in concealing it. Though split instances of nervous tics could be evidence of her own debilitation of the heart, especially in group settings: a sudden stammer, a double blink, a bite in the lip on the rare occasions when Jared landed a well-timed and tasteful witticism.
Things took their course in a steady, mostly seamless trajectory. Jared asked her out for coffee, which dovetailed into a three-hour walk around historic Morristown. One date followed somewhat more involved meetings, though nothing overelaborate as Diana, much to Jared’s pleasure, preferred simplicity and directness. The debilitations were cured as they often are by those trivial moments and subtle exchanges that echo in significance between two people as if they’d fallen willfully into a cave of their own creation. In the most pleasant times, Jared and Diana would argue as to who direct-messaged whom first to commiserate over their shared if not reasonably argued disdain for Better Call Saul or their shared enthusiasm for Daybreakers or how society would be healthier if everyone understood and appreciated Southland Tales at their exultant level. Diana chided Jared’s eccentric insistence on the superiority of McDonald’s coffee. Jared was charmed by Diana’s fondness for ABBA even as he never understood it.
Within a few months they’d been staying at each other’s places. Diana had a house with two other girlfriends; Jared had a condominium with Marcos, who bartended at the restaurant where Diana was a server; in fact, Jared had met Diana when Marcos took him to one of her barbecues. Within a year, Diana had replaced Marcos at the condo, and the shockwaves subsided as their infatuation progressed into comfortable complacency, wherein they became slightly annoyed at each other’s poor habits and debated the various merits and demerits of puppy ownership.
This development was likely not as special to most people as it was to Jared, who before that had not met anyone with whom he could see many decades ahead. Diana was the first woman in whose confidence he, at the ripe age of 27, could feel more fully, and maybe even be, adult. Yet it was made all the more special for Jared by its protracted derailment nearly a year later.
Jared felt the shockwaves for the first time in he didn’t know how long, in the guest bedroom of Marcos’s and his girlfriend Eve’s house, where he lived for the duration, standing over a box of what remained of Diana’s personal effects. All it took was to limply handle a loose-leaf notebook from one of her community college courses, out of which fell two envelopes. Jared at first thought them to be unremarkable; items left over from some bureaucratic procedure never completed. But the invisible fist struck as he regarded both more closely, and saw them bearing her distinctly wide-curled penmanship, in her favorite purple ink, displaying “For Jared (July 14)” and “For Jared (July 21).” The July 14 envelope, dated the day after he last saw her, was opened while the one marked July 21, two days after she was discovered, was sealed. The force of the shock sent him onto the bed. How, he thought, was this not noticed before? And should he turn them in? Jared would have needed to open them to determine that, an act he was not inclined to do at that moment.
He should have guessed that the simple act of consigning the rest of Diana’s stuff to public storage entombment would turn out to be anything but. True, Diana did make things easier in the lead up to her leaving by carefully redistributing her possessions so as not to alert those around her that her leaving was to be permanent. Now her family and her social circle was made a veritable museum dedicated to Diana and her demise. The objects—a CD and a book here; a New Jersey-shaped cutting board and vintage Action Park t-shirt there—became cursed to their new possessors who nonetheless felt the obligation to keep them lest they show disrespect for their generous yet inadvertently cruel loved one. These recipients were careful not to direct their resentment to Jared. His burden was far greater, even as this new discovery also brought him with in their range.
Jared regained enough composure to fold the envelopes and put them into the inside pocket of his jacket. He had a schedule to keep: meet Diana’s brother at the storage unit in Secaucus in the afternoon while making it back on time for his shift at the Cosmo Roller Palace.
It was just after noon as he went out into the house, box in hand. Marcos and Eve were beginning their days out back. From the kitchen Jared could see Eve on the porch practicing yoga in an oversized Ripping Corpse t-shirt, a snow hat, and mittens. Even in December, she preferred to practice in the open air. She felt it made her a better instructor for her students at the local senior living center. Though she was in no way officially qualified to teach yoga, Jared thought there could be worse things for her to be unqualified to do. And how flexible were geriatrics anyway?
When he went outside, he saw Marcos by the edge of the yard in a sweatsuit and brandishing his ax with which he cut the firewood he chopped the day before into smaller pieces. Though the stucco-façade interwar house they were renting had a fireplace, the chimney had not been cleaned in some time; Marcos seemed mostly to be chopping wood for his own health benefits.
“Hey,” Jared called out.
Marcos stopped swinging and caught his breath. “You heading out?”
“To Secaucus then to work.”
“Dylan is making you do this again?”
“This is the last time.”
“I’d make sure of that if I were you. Stop letting him do this.”
“He needs to find a healthier outlet,” Eve said retaining her position.
This conversation had happened a few times, and Jared was running out of proclamations to do what he never ended up doing. “I mean … yeah … don’t we all.” He looked back to Marcos. “You’re on tonight, right?”
“Till one, yeah.”
“Okay. See you … tomorrow, I guess.”
They weren’t wrong, Jared thought, as he drove eastbound on 78. Dylan had become a noxious antagonist in Jared’s post-Diana life. Jared sensed that deep down Dylan thought little of him generally, if not outright unworthy of his younger sister’s affections. That Diana didn’t much mind Dylan’s feelings on the matter kept him in check. With her gone, however, Dylan was set free to impose his distaste upon Jared for as long as he had it to impose. The supply seemed to be bottomless, fueled no doubt by some suspicion of complicity on Jared’s part in the whole affair. At Diana’s closed-casket memorial, Jared felt vaguely put-upon by her family’s anguish that, by all rights, was only slightly more intense than his own. But it was Dylan who broached the unpleasant revelation as he stood by the photo collages at the back of the room.
“You had to have known, Jared,” Dylan said under his breath and uncomfortably close to his face. “What idiot wouldn’t notice something was wrong?”
No answer was forthcoming. And even if Jared had one, no single answer would have satisfied Dylan’s grief, or his parents’. Now Dylan calls in to see if there’s anything left of Diana’s in his possession and to bring it to his storage unit. Dylan had long ago dropped any pretense for closure, preferring rather to regard Jared with a broad but potent hostility either for not rescuing his sister or being unable to in the first place. Which is indeed what took place when Jared and Dylan met in front of the unit.
Jared held the box out to him. “This is the last of it. You have everything. If you need more stuff you need to find other people. Though I don’t know who has what.”
Dylan peered into the box as if sifting for some specific yet uncertain clue that would explain the whole thing. Here Jared was internally relieved to have found those envelopes when he did. Dylan’s mordant relish at discovering them right then and there would have been unbearable. But Dylan found nothing of note. He stepped back and stared at Jared with a mock coldness that was clearly holding back stronger emotions.
“Is that all?”
“I’ll call you if I need anything.”
“I know you will, Dylan.”
Jared was not so self-flagellating that he felt he deserved this degree of scrutiny, but what was he going to do? No one was prepared for what happened. Who could be?
Ever since that afternoon nearly a year and a half ago when Diana boarded the van to the Poconos, Jared turned over in his mind all he should have done to prevent the outcome that unfolded. Obviously he should have stopped her from going at all. He had enough logic that it was the right thing to do as a boyfriend and as a human being. But she was so far gone by that point. Indeed, she was experiencing an infatuation of a level wholly unknown to him. Diana had played it down as best she could despite Jared’s growing misgivings that things had gotten wildly out of control. She and her new friends were going camping to celebrate the end of summer before fall semester and the completion of their very long project. She did not say what the celebration would entail or what the duration of the trip would be. Neither of them owned any camping gear and she never bought any in advance of the trip. She did not call while she was there. Jared’s calls went unanswered until they just went right to voicemail.
Jared stewed in isolation for what felt like an endless expanse of time, though in concrete terms it was less than a week. He’d gotten a frantic call from Eve, then from Diana’s former housemates, then from his parents, all repeating what they saw on the news and on the internet. Hikers discovered six bodies in a clearing in the Pocono mountains, all laid in a semicircle. Five were draped in flowing white gowns while one male body lay naked in the center. Empty bottles of wine, a bong, and a totem that had been set aflame were found on the premises. Initial reports described them as all wearing exaggerated facial masks, but the plasticine, wide-grinning expressions all turned out to be their own faces. This detail was as mysterious as it was disturbing, with toxicology reports showing nothing other than alcohol, marijuana, and various psychiatric medications in their systems. They died, it seems, in the throes of a heightened ecstasy of no scientifically attainable source.
The strangeness of the case sent it well beyond the confines of northern New Jersey. A few reporters discovered his and Diana’s address and camped out in the parking lot of his condo unit for a good four days. Every time he went out, Jared was met with more outlandish inquiries until Diana had become a monster who sacrificed dogs and infants in a community college boiler room. She was, in the words of one especially colorful journalist, “getting her Associates degree in Advanced Demonics.” Worse still, Jared was interviewed by the police three times. Though each interrogation made the sadness of Jared’s true role in the whole debacle as apparent as it did the more culpable party.
So no, there wasn’t much Jared could do to change this tense relationship he had developed with his girlfriend’s bereaved brother. But at least now he had something that Dylan could not by any rights get to, even as the obscurity of what he actually had easily undercut whatever superiority he could derive from it.
Jared hunched over the counter of the skate rental station of the Cosmo Roller Palace with the first envelope laid out before him. His hesitation to discovering its contents was as strong then as it was when he found it earlier in the day. It was enough for him to fixate on the writing on the front of it—his own name—as the nearest thing to a physical remnant of Diana’s being. Each looped letter was a sinew of life flickering beyond her resting place, and flickering for him alone.
Winter was not a prime season for the roller rink. But Christian Youth Night was a reliable holiday occasion for it, in which teen and pre-teen parishioners of the First Episcopal Church and the Reformed Episcopal Church down the street set aside their sectional conflicts to roll around an oval to Top 40 hits that, after four years of employment, blurred for Jared into an indistinct drone with occasional squeals and glitches. Though it could not mask the high smack on the counter from the hand of Jared’s ponytailed manager Chet, who did not appreciate inattentiveness.
“Read your mail on your own time,” he yelled before he walked off to do something similar by the indescribably high teenage snack bar attendants, whom Jared interchangeably referred to as “Marc” and “Mark.”
Jared put the letter in his back pocket and looked out into the rink. The whirling flock of Episcopal teens was unchanging in its enthusiasm (high) and its velocity (middling-to-moribund). They were attended by two youth pastors. One, a woman, was on the rink, holding the hands of two girls and trailed by a small orbit of others. Jared imagined her at Sunday School or weekly catechism or whatever it is Episcopalians do with their young earnestly engaging in unsolicited homilies on safe sex and articulating other broad moral lessons in relatable ways and popular allusions, like through episodes of Riverdale.
The other youth pastor was by all accounts the less approachable, standing cross-armed, rigid, and straight-faced at the edge of the rink. His charges periodically skated up to him chirping like sugar-infused birds, trying to compel him to join them; each time he resisted. Instead, he paced all over the complex like a rotund sentinel, his girth barely concealed by an oversized church-issued fleece. Eventually he approached Jared at the counter. He placed both hands primly on the surface where the envelope just was and leaned into him with a pleasant grin that was failing to overcome his natural, very Episcopalian-seeming gravity. He mouthed something at Jared, but the blare of the EDM pulsing overhead drowned him out. Perhaps he was asking for the music to be turned down. But Jared did what he’d always done in those awkward situations: he nodded affirmatively, made eye contact, smiled, and directed him to the snack bar. A chill of resignation prickled over the chaperone’s face. His authority, earthly and celestial, had hit a neon-streaked but nonetheless iron wall. He did as Jared directed. May God guide him, he thought.
Just as the pastor moved out of view, Chet was right behind him standing among the benches, as if conjured from no certain dimension, his face grained with whiskers and staring with a gaze typical of him that was as impenetrable from without as it was condemnatory from within. Once he was done transmitting whatever vague nonverbal castigation he desired, he shuffled off, his graying ponytail held stiffly in profile, to some other part of the rink.
Jared took out his phone to note the time. It was only 7:12. 11:00 seemed an incalculable distance from that point. A group of pious girls in Ivy League and sister school sweatshirts sipped from sodas and giggled at nothing. Some tried to flirt with Marc and Mark, despite their having succumbed to an obvious, hopeless stupor.
His blood felt like it was idling in place. He wanted to pray for a faceplant on the rink. Maybe two people, while holding hands.
Tuesdays and Thursdays in the spring semester were perhaps no busier for Diana than the Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Where the latter three were divided by school and work, the former two were divided by work and school. She put in a full day shift as a cashier at a florist’s shop. She came home to eat a quick dinner of leftovers or takeout. If she was not feeling especially pressed for time she would put her dishes in the dishwasher before going to the bedroom where she laid out her necessary materials the night before, and go back out the door for her 7:00 night class at the county college. When Jared wasn’t working he would watch from their living room couch as Diana carried out this process with an almost predetermined automation. She always ended it the same way, turning back to Jared and smiling as she drifted through the door to tell him “I’m off to my cult meeting. Don’t wait up.” She never gave him a moment to respond.
Diana could lay her irony on a little thick. It was the one affectation of hers that didn’t send shockwaves through him when they first met. It had the air of the record store clerk’s superior detachment, something she was in a time when such a role was still relevant. But with some forbearance on his part, Diana educated Jared on the oft-overlooked distinction between the cold irony of the gatekeeper and the reflexive irony of the earnest seeker that was closer to Diana’s core. Every serious endeavor she undertook seemed to begin as a kind of lark that was bound to end in tears and disaster. It’s the sort of complex you develop when subdued expectations seem to linger around you as they certainly had with her.
It baffled Jared how Diana would ever be dwelling in the shadow of her brother. Dylan, by his estimation, was a middling office drone with a flat trajectory and an inner life guided solely by making everyone around him as unhappy as he was. But of course there was more to it. Dylan had the gift so abundant among men of his age and class of the appearance of being responsible for various and important tasks that kept society’s gears oiled and running. As long as Dylan conveyed the generalities of his work—as a paralegal or a finance researcher, Jared couldn’t remember which—in a self-assured but stoic tone, no one questioned him on specifics. Dylan, in other words, was at least smooth in his arc where his younger sister was jagged, leaving an extensive path of peaks and troughs.
Diana was not troubled or troublesome in the typical after-school special sense, but rather restless, wayward, and sometimes unlucky. Her first attempt at college was interrupted by a desire to join AmeriCorps, but when that didn’t pan out, either because she didn’t finish the paperwork or found some reason to sabotage her induction, she went on a cross-country road trip with two male friends, guided by the pattern of summer festivals. Diana tended to speak obliquely and jokingly about her past, as if she herself was still trying to sort out its relation to her present. She never made clear how she came to part with the two men (or they with her), causing her to call home in tears from a payphone in Duluth. Her parents, in a punitive mood, paid for her bus ticket home.
A habit had formed in Diana’s mind from that point that any serious plan or life choice was being taken up by a fool with a fool’s dim prospects. It was so when she decided she wanted to resume her education from scratch, and it might have been so with her relationship with Jared.
He wasn’t even sure if “Reggie” was the real name of the man he replaced or the name that best captured his essence. He knew it was not healthy for either of them to hear her tell of this phantom, but Jared couldn’t help but relish even the slightest recall as it so greatly reinforced his own sense of self within their pairing. Jared found comfort and clarity in the negative comparisons. He may have been anxious and insecure with undercurrents of neediness, but he was not possessive and suffocating in the “Reggie” mode. He could not boast of enviable professional prospects as an indentured odds-and-ends man at the roller rink, but he was not unreliable or incompetent in that role. And he had neither the strength nor the will to leave holes in the walls without apparent provocation. It was not a balm of perfect contentment, to be sure. Jared could still be prone to fleeting pangs of desire to make a positive choice, such as learning to cook a meal more involved than boiling carbohydrates and reheating premade sauce. But just being witness to Diana making one positive choice after another, whether they panned out or not, was exhausting in itself.
The pattern reasserted itself with Diana’s “cult,” which is how she referred to her class dedicated to examining the mindset of cult members. Diana was taking Anatomies of Devotion and Obedience as a part the process that was supposed to crescendo into Masters in Psychology of not a full PsyD. But it also cut close, perhaps all too perfectly, to interests with special resonance for her. Her waywardness seemed less like flightiness to Jared than an intelligence that was better fostered outside of an institutional setting. So when she returned to even this minor institution she came gilded with a sort of field experience.
Perhaps her interest in the lengths people go to lend their individual capacities to a greater cause, however eccentric or pointless, was innate in her being from the start, but it grew in manifold ways while she travelled through the regions of the country from which she’d long been sheltered. Whether they were resilient hippy communes, schismatic church factions, or even roving bands of carnies, Diana was struck by how the nation tended to break down into mini-nations, independent of and willfully unknown to each other, and guided by their own moral codes. She felt like a great secret had stumbled into her view and that it was her task to arrange it in some all-encompassing way, though she never seemed to know to what ultimate purpose. This class, she thought, might help her figure that out.
Jared could do nothing else but to prepare for the certain eventuality that this would blossom into a more substantial commitment. Having seen the fruits of the ones already made, he viewed it with a typical hopefulness. It would mean he would see her much less than he already did, and may put his status in a holding pattern. Maybe that was a price to be paid for a long-term investment, though Jared knew next to nothing about making investments, financial or otherwise. Jared would think back on that initial hopefulness after how the class actually turned out. Sometimes he was ashamed and demoralized for what he saw as an enabling credulity on his part, indeed something close to the very complicity her brother wanted to pin on him. But most times he accepted that that’s the kind of mind he had, it was never going to bend any other way.
Chet greeted Jared at his next shift and introduced him to a stain of nacho cheese sauce that had encrusted into Pollack-like streaks on the comet tail, rainbow, and pizza slice-patterned carpet.
“How did it get there?” Jared asked.
“That’s hardly relevant,” Chet replied sternly but fairly. “Please add it to your list.”
“I need to clock in first.”
Chet gestured toward the back room as if to grant him precious access. His manner would have been more comforting if it had been sarcastic. But comfort or concession was not in Chet’s frame of reference for the most part. At the same time, Chet was Jared’s only viable guide in how to conduct his period of mourning the year before. Sure, people were coming in all directions with offers of counsel or referrals to better sources of counsel but they were either beyond his scope of understanding or beyond his economic limitations. Chet provided something that was manageable: routine with added flexibility. At least in so far as there was a period in which he gave Jared leeway in carrying out his duties at his own less efficient pace. It would be three months before Chet needed him to become a reliable employee again. One who was expected to rid that specific surface of the planet of fugitive cheese sauce with the fullest prejudice.
Jared scrubbed the carpet as a bespoke soundtrack of Frank Sinatra, Frankie Vallie, Roy Orbison, and Leslie Gore played overhead. It was the playlist reserved for Senior Night, maintained with the most reactionary continuity since well before his own tenure. A strange adherence, he thought, since the kind of seniors who were likely to enjoy those songs were no longer around to hear them.
The stain had not fully dried when he attended to it and his efforts only caused it to smear into an ever-widening yellow circle. As the playlist cycled to the Happy Days theme song for what felt like the third time, the stain began to take on existential dimensions in his mind. Jared could not improve the situation to suit the morality of cleanliness dictated down to him by his long-haired superior. The stain’s agenda felt in that moment far more compelling, and Jared began to see both the possibility and the reasonableness in allowing it to spread, not just over the entire carpet but onto the brilliant surface of the rink, onto its neon-striped walls and the spinning laser lights, and out onto the world at-large. He could see himself surrendering to this unstoppable force. More importantly and amusingly, he could see Chet writhing in cheese-infused agony, in the face to total collapse of his domain. As he swirled at the stain with an aimless indifference, he chuckled.
“What are you laughing at?” a female voice called down to him.
Jared looked up to find Eve smiling down at him like a benevolent giantess.
“I was thinking of a funny joke.”
“I’ve been saying ‘Hi’ to you since forever.”
Jared gave up on the stain, reduced to a faded brown or gray depending upon the light, and stood up. “Sorry, everyone kind of looks the same out there.” He looked out onto the rink and saw the elderly patrons hobbling well out of sync with the music.
“I might have forgotten to tell you I’d be here,” she said. “Stick around after? Chet said Jesse and I can practice for a bit. Or whatever.”
The epilogue to Senior Night consisted of Eve and Jesse skating in a tight, coordinated circle to the tune of “These Boots Were Made for Walking” and other songs they compiled to maintain their competitive edge in the New Jersey Roller Derby league. In addition to being Eve’s teammate in the Morris Marauders, Jesse lived with Diana before a time she used to call the “Jared era.” Jesse usually met Diana’s self-conscious irony with her gimlet-eyed sardonicism, which she enjoyed transmitting to Jared when she felt he had disrupted their dynamic. Jesse’s attitude would soften in reasonable human terms, of course, but it melted into something approaching remorse in the wake of the much greater disruption that followed. Jared did not consider her a friend, and he suspected the feeling was mutual. It was rather that they were bonded in mutual sympathy as all powerless bystanders are.
Jared leaned over the barrier of the rink as Eve and Jesse commenced their drills, yelling abbreviated affirmations at each other like goons giving spots at the bench press. Nancy Sinatra faded and Bikini Kill rose, which itself faded into Minor Threat. Chet swept the arcade area while making quick, careful glances out toward the rink.
“Jesse thinks I need a new team name,” Eve yelled out to Jared.
“What is it?”
“Or Anne Wrecks-ton.”
“Neither look good on the jersey,” Jesse insisted.
“I don’t think so. And Coach thinks it’s fine.”
“That’s not what she tells us.”
Eve stopped her drill and coasted on the rink regarding this curious admission.
“What’s yours?” Jared asked Jesse.
Jesse skated over to Jared. “Mauly Golightly. You know as in ‘I’m going to maul you …’.”
Jared nodded and smiled. “Yeah of course.” He paused. “Are the puns necessary?”
“I guess? It’s kind of a habit. Some girls prefer alliteration. Like, I don’t know, ‘Bone Broad’ or ‘Katie Killswitch’ or something.”
They both looked back onto the rink and saw that Eve had coaxed Marc or Mark into some form of life, taking his hands into hers and whirling him around like a child, which at least in spirit he was. Jesse turned back to Jared with a subdued expression.
“So I’m going to say something stupid.”
“Are you … holding up okay?”
“Why is that stupid?”
“It just feels stupid to ask.”
“I don’t think it is,” he said blandly. “And I’m doing okay.”
“Are you seeing anyone?”
“I haven’t had much interest in dating yet. But I guess it’s not ‘too soon’ anymore, is it?”
“No I mean—well I don’t know about that—but I was talking about therapy.”
“Oh, not really.”
“I know people have probably brought that up to you. But I did the group thing this past summer when things felt really heavy. I know a good one in Hoboken.”
“Send me the info.”
Jesse skated over to her purse and handed him a business card.
“Just in case.”
“Thanks, I appreciate it.” He looked briefly at the card and slid it into his pocket, both gave nonverbal intimations that each had done something resembling the right thing.
They fidgeted in a prolonged silence as Eve taught both Marc and Mark how to balance themselves.
“So I can confess something, and promise not to be mad?”
“It’s just … this has been bothering me for ages and I haven’t had the courage to bring it up.”
“What is it?”
“So you remember all that news about … about how Diana looked when they found her?”
“They all looked like that.”
“Yeah … yeah. Anyway, that really got to me in the immediate aftermath. I don’t know why. It just seemed so unreal, that something like that could happen to someone like her.”
“Yeah, I’ve felt that too.”
“Right? Well, and again I’m so sorry I did this.” She paused. “But … remember how the casket was closed at her wake?”
“I opened it.”
Jared gave a puzzled but not offended expression. “You opened it?”
“Just for a second! I stood right at the end of the casket and lifted it up really quick. I just had to see it for myself. You saw it, right?”
“I haven’t. Dylan made the ID.”
“Oh,” she looked down regretfully at her skates. “Well, it wasn’t what I expected. And it made me confused. I wanted to ask about that but … I guess it’s a wash. I’m terrible.”
“Don’t worry about it. I think that was all handled very badly, and blown out of proportion.”
“Yeah, I agree.”
A thud fixed their attention back on the rink to see that one of the snack bar kids had faceplanted.
“A little help,” Eve called out laughing.
Jesse skated toward her, leaving Jared no excuse from attending to the trash.
Of course Jared did see Diana’s lifeless face at some point in the memorial process; and if he’d cared to say so, he would have concurred more or less with Jesse’s bewilderment. But it never left as strong an impression as the face Diana made when he last saw her alive, the morning of the trip, looking at him as she often did in the liminal space of the condo doorway. It, too, was not what he’d expected. Given the situation, he’d expected something blank; something washed of personality, memory, or emotion. In some way it was. Diana’s face was placid and unperturbed to a degree he’d never seen. In that moment he knew what it looked like with the irony to which he’d grown accustomed, the reflex of the habitual second-guesser, had been drained out of it. In its place was a kind of self-assurance, a certainty, the face of someone who knew all she felt needed knowing.
“It comes from Oscar Wilde,” Diana said to Jared as The Walking Dead flickered on his laptop screen. “At the premiere of one of his plays, he and select cast members and friends wore these green carnations on their coats and dresses. Professor Vine said it was done to convey secrecy without actually having a secret.”
Jared cocked his head skeptically and regarded the green string around Diana’s wrist that compelled her exposition.
“Obviously the carnations are kind of … showy … for our purposes. But I think the bracelets give off a stronger impression.”
“Like Kabbalah. The red string famous people wore 20 years ago.”
“Exactly, that was part of the lesson, too. The idea though is to make people curious as much as it is to signify some kind of membership. I’ve had some people come up to me in the food court and ask me where I got it.”
“What do you tell them?”
“I’m not good at this part, to be honest. Professor Vine made conversion and recruitment a big part of the project. But I’m not totally adjusted to going out and … I guess … preying on people.”
“Is that what it feels like?”
“Sometimes. It’s like I’m going hunting for a certain type of person. I have to have a special sort of vision where I can see people with huge holes in the middle of their bodies that can only be filled with what I have to offer them.”
“That’s being a salesman, I think.”
“What are you offering them?”
“The Second Soul.”
“What is that?”
“Professor Vine’s program. We’re supposed to tell people that what they think of as their soul or their spirit or whatever you want to call it is not their only soul. But that second soul is hiding because it is closer to who we actually are or should be. And we can help you bring it out.”
“Professor Vine emphasized a self-fulfillment angle over a spreading-the-Gospel angle.” She paused and looked at the laptop with disinterest and turned back to Jared. “We don’t really do anything, though. Like we don’t actually brainwash them. People who are interested are told to come to a conference room between classes to fill out a questionnaire. We cut out a piece of green yarn for them and tell them they can wear it for as long as they wish.”
“You can leave anytime!”
Diana chuckled under her hand.
“Do people actually wear it for very long?”
“Some do. It’s fun to be a part of something.”
“This is like that, uhm, that Wave thing they teach in high school.”
“Yeah, the professor mentioned that.”
“And maybe the Stanford Prison Experiment?”
“But weren’t those both disasters?”
Diana frowned and leaned away on her place in the couch.
“I’m sorry,” Jared corrected, “I didn’t mean to say … I’m sure it’s int—”
“Professor Vine has gone over many scenarios with us,” Diana said coolly.
“How are your other classes?”
Diana fixed her gaze back onto the screen though with no greater indication of interest in what she was seeing. “They’re okay, I guess.”
Jared wanted to see the Professor for himself after the many offhand references of him made by Diana began to crowd out any other detail related to her education. He didn’t know what to expect, and through the rectangle of the YouTube screen, which made everyone their own digital zoo exhibit, it was still harder to gauge.
Francis Vine, PhD sat in a hunched position on the local access TV set before a wall-sized blue curtain and over a matching blue carpet. He wore a salmon-colored dress shirt over a tweed blazer with black jeans and brown loafers, the kind with tassels. His hair was thin and tussled up and out, as if he’d come in from a strong breeze. His eyes were obscured by the studio light glare on his oval-shaped metal-framed glasses. At first glance, the professor was defined by a kind of softness. His round face was pillowed by infantile cheeks, his stomach sloped lazily over his waist, and his voice, which spoke very broadly and typically of “power dynamics” and “dominance vs. submission instincts,” was closer to the deference of the concierge than the fiats of the intellectual. Jared could not boast of having used his Monmouth degree to its fullest potential, but he gained enough experience to know that, though many professors were perfectly serviceable and even inspiring, there were a few who used language like a screen. Some professors simply didn’t know much of anything; while other professors know more than they were willing to tell. As the video progressed, Professor Vine’s posture looked defensive and nervous, but not passive.
Shortly after their conversation, Jared began to notice that Diana never took off her green bracelet except for when she went into the shower. And even then, she would sometimes forget and have to get it replaced. The string was upgraded to a more prominent and durable ribbon sometime after midterms.
There’s no right way to see what I need to say to you. By the time you’ve opened this letter, I will be
in another place far away, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. The distance between us was made long ago. Maybe you noticed it. Maybe if we were not so scared to call each other out out to each other, we’d be in a different place. But now that’s wishful thinking. Maybe it was always that.
I want you to understand more than anything. Love is a kind of understanding.
This will feel like an end to something that was special to you, and you will think that because it is ending in the way that it is that it was not special to me. This is not true. It’s not that I became a different person in the last few months, but that an additional person appeared alongside the person you knew and loved. (love?) There was a thrill in leading this double life, even in the guilt of hiding it from you. But that wasn’t the point. One had to recede while the other had to be born ascend rise. I’m so sorry. You wi
“Hey I need you to tend to a situation in the bathroom,” Chet said as he applied rouge to his cheeks to better affect a clown-like countenance. Situation was a special trigger-word in Chet’s vocabulary.
“Which bathroom?” Jared asked.
“The boy’s bathroom.”
“What’s the situation?”
“There’s cake on the floor.”
“Oh,” he said with a relieved sigh.
“But it came out of someone’s stomach. I need you to get the sawdust.”
Jared let out a far less relieved groan. “Already? The cake isn’t even out yet.”
“Someone got into it beforehand, I guess,” he said as he stretched out his rainbow-colored wig to fit into his awkwardly hair-netted head. “I don’t see how this is my problem but I guess I have to smooth over some moms. Can you hand me that nose over there?”
Jared grabbed a red foam nose that completed Chet’s look and he skated in full clown regalia over to the private event.
Jared struggled to dodge erratic patterns of children as he rolled the mop and bucket along the length of the rink. The laser lights were on in full, infusing the space with more bolts of the neon spectrum than anyone would think sound. At least, he thought, the shrill renditions of Carly Rae Jepsen would be muffled from behind the swinging bathroom door as he commenced his intimate transaction with someone’s vomit, which in his situation made this otherwise distinct low point as close to a high point amid the consistent stasis that defined his days.
Jared sloshed the browned water in an unhelpful figure-eight pattern, dissolving but perpetuating the mess has he tended to do. “I’m sorry too,” he muttered with the compulsion of a dry heave.
Wheeling the other way along the rink upon completion of his task, he saw Chet was still in his beclowned state. His crude makeup, done in haste with department store cosmetics, made it hard for Jared to tell if his grin was earnest. He did seem relieved to escape his management role and partake in a delight-giving one, even if he did not seem very successful. Chet’s attempts at balloon-sculpted animals proved inexact, some looking mauled by balloon creatures further up the food chain; and his ponytail so rose from under his hairnet that it looked as if something was growing out of the back of his head.
Jared had lost track of the number of children that crowded the place as he seemed to keep dodging them in greater supply. As he passed them, though, he took immediate notice of their glowing bracelets, provided for the party no doubt, but all of which glowed a dark green, though the color manipulation of the laser lights made this uncertain. He watched as Chet found equilibrium leading a cluster of the partygoers around the rink for a final lap. Trailing at a marked distance behind them was a woman in a long white dress. The other skaters made a space for her as she swayed at her own pace, apparently oblivious to the cacophony of sound and light. Jared put it down to being a parent who’d long ago mastered a meditative centeredness that put up a sturdy but momentarily wall against the sensory overload of childrearing.
“I’m sorry too,” he said again as he gathered the stray cups and party hats, and disposed of that night’s garbage. And again when he was organizing the skates in the rental station. And once more as he wiped down the tables of the snack area, and watched as Chet swept the rink of tissue streamers and balloons, still in his skates, still in clown form.
“I wish you hadn’t said that thing about Professor Vine to my mom,” Diana said as she prodded her fork over the plate of quinoa in front of her, turning the large mound of boiled seeds into several smaller ones.
Jared reached for the last bottle of beer in the fridge. “What thing? When did I do that?” He tossed the cap in the sink and leaned against the counter.
“At the barbecue the other night.”
“Barbecue?” He looked away in thought. “You mean the other week?”
Diana shot him a pained look one usually makes when caught in a moment of ignorance. It quickly receded. “Does it make a difference when it was?”
“What did I say? Honestly, remind me.”
Jared had to reach back for a memory somewhere beyond the variations of Diana’s recent bouts of non-presence that had become more prevalent in his mind. It was then nearing the end of June, the spring semester had been over for more than a month, but the green bracelet remained on Diana’s wrist, and the “project” that put it there seemed only to expand in its proportions. It began to consume greater and greater parts of Diana’s life. She quit her job at the restaurant, but she kept going out at night and never saying where. When Jared would return home from his shifts at the Roller Palace near midnight she would still be out, only to appear when he woke up the next morning, sometimes next to him in bed but often upright on the couch with her eyes opened and fixed. Even when Diana was around she still managed to be absent, as if her consciousness had departed to some far-off region, leaving Jared to babysit her skin and bones.
But yes, after all that there was a moment from earlier in the month when Jared was pouring her a glass of chardonnay and asking if Professor Vine permitted her to consume alcohol. It was, he had to admit, kind of an insensitive comment, made all the worse because Diana’s mother chuckled at it, less for the quality of its humor, for which there was very little, and more for its familiarity. The girl crying through her receiver all the way in Minnesota might have become more sophisticated since returning, but she did not acclimate. Jared remembered Diana’s face being flushed of its color as he handed her the glass and muttering “Yes he does” before going to another part of the yard. Only then did her mother make a more concise inquiry.
“Just some mentor of hers” he said.
“Ah, of course.”
Jared also remembered the silent drive home, and of Diana’s face of sanguine detachment, glowing under the red traffic light, at once unnerving him and denying him catharsis.
“I just think you’re being kind of selfish,” Diana said back at the table, shifting her quinoa into more abstract formations. She looked up at him awaiting a response.
“I’m sorry you feel that way,” he droned back. They both looked down.
But Jared was as fine with selfishness as he was with insensitivity. Every accusation Diana lobbed against him was true. Space that Jared felt was rightfully his was being sectioned off against his wishes and redistributed to unwelcomed intruders. If it did not reflect well on him in that moment it was at least something concrete. Problems of strained compatibility and newly emergent and conflicting priorities weighed on him with a grim comprehension, as did the ever-growing tenuousness of them being able to make rent on time. These were preferable to conscription into spiritual warfare that was registering more severely to him the more this carried on.
“The florist called,” Jared said. “You missed another shift. They’re going to let you go.”
Diana slammed her fork onto the table, shaking the quinoa back into disorder. “Don’t change the subject.”
“I don’t think I have.”
Some additional accusations would have been welcomed thereafter. About how Jared was not pulling his own weight and not making more positive choices. Accusations that someone in a normal situation would gladly air. That Jared flaked on an interview with a call center the week before, and therefore doing his own part to prolong their crisis, did not cross Diana’s range of conception. Instead she teared up, blubbered something Jared could not understand, and abandoned her touched but uneaten meal for the bathroom. Jared sat just outside the door listening to her whisper a half-hour’s worth of rhythmic intonations. He went to the bedroom to watch a 1970s cop drama hoping to tune out the intrusive thought that this was the most herself Diana had been since maybe the spring. Diana did not join him.
The next morning he found her sitting cross-legged on the couch, that washed-over look of inner calm and steely alertness having returned, as if she’d been rebooted and reset.
It was that situation that Jared could never adequately relay to Dylan or to anyone when prompted. He did know what was happening, but he knew he’d already lost.
If you are reading this in a sleepless night, then I guess everything went as we’d planned. My apologies in the first letter are not cancelled in this one. But I’m not in a position to repeat them.
You will probably remain sleepless for a while because of things I said and the things you hadn’t and wish you did. That’s how it is for all of us, I guess. Not sure why that makes this special.
But I’m also sure that what’s keeping you up is this: the thought of whether it was you I was thinking of in my final moment before my point of transference. And that I’ve carried something with me after I passed that point. These will be hard things to hear, especially if you are reading this first (which you’re not supposed to by the way): but you won’t be. And we’re not going to the same places.
I hope having read this that you will sleep better in time.
This place is a survivor, Jared thought as he roamed the empty Cosmo Roller Palace. Everything around it—homes, shops, schools, office parks, and the like—may go to ruin. New buildings may rise in their place, all suitable to whatever future we’re going to get: pods, cemeteries, or podded cemeteries. But not here. This place had a purpose all to its own; its own law and agenda. This rink was a great neon mausoleum. Jared had always marveled at the Palace’s resilience in the face of unstoppable pivoting. Its obstinance, so unattractive in a human, commanded awe, if only from him. Everyone else took it for granted and were hopelessly dependent upon it being so stubbornly the same, decade after decade. Few, Jared reasoned, really played arcade games; that area demanded the least attention out of anything. But they had to be there, like some organ with an indeterminate but still crucial role in the body.
Such are the thoughts inspired by a space free of the things that give it life. Jared had trouble placing his reasons for being there under those circumstances. Though it was no better or worse than other places or other people, given late events.
He’d come to adopt what he thought were the psychic patterns of Diana in her last weeks. The unmoored fluidity of time, displacement of consciousness, sleeping for most of the daylight hours. All seemed to converge onto him, either from some unexplained outward osmosis or because he willed it. Maybe he thought it would help him understand as Diana wanted him to understand. But he couldn’t, not on their own, isolated from some focal point, absent of something to adhere to. That would make him a lunatic, he thought. It would also make him very nearly a normal person.
In all his time working there, Jared never saw the rental station from the other side, not truly. Yet there he was accepting a pair of skates, strangely newer than what he gave to others, freshly unpacked and unworn until now. He beheld them and felt that he had been a miser for the most vital years of his life. Still, he strapped them on, though he’d never done that either, he’d never deigned to skate, to be jovial as skaters are. Even when he was content in his life he never extended much empathy toward his patrons.
The gap he’d placed between him and them appeared now to be narrowing to the thinnest margin as he tied on the skates and glided over to the rink as if he’d been doing it for years. Once within the barrier the laser lights went on. He did a lap at medium speed, seamless and with perfect balance. Cue the music. An up-tempo, catchy, but not immediately traced composition; music that was not premade but being made based on his movements. He glided more steadily, swaying, spinning, attempting to jump but halting, no need to test the limits. The music grew louder. He spread his hands out to cut the air as he moved faster. His left hand had the feeling of being taken by another. A porcelain-hued hand in a white gown. She’d returned. The couple’s skate commenced.
One hand, from the surer skater of the two, guided the other, spinning in tighter and tighter circles toward the center of the rink. Then both hands clasped and Jared was face to face with the figure. His gaze met hers as they spun in place, gaining speed, everything around them dissolving into sharp, hot pink and blue needlepoints. His mind could not or would not settle on a singular shape, shifting form from moment to moment. One moment: a clouded gray abstraction; next moment: a wide-grinning thing; next moment: a glowing red mask of secrets withheld; next, hopefully final, moment: an angel of clear blue light.
At what point Jared leapt out of reality into wherever he now found himself and whether he leapt by accident or by intent was not his responsibility to determine. Somehow he’d been set free and flown right into someone’s hands. Someone who, despite the iron dictates of logic and her own cutting words, had been waiting for his hands all along. He’d made a positive choice.
The invisible fist struck from every direction and Jared was happily vulnerable. “Please God,” he called out, “please keep me buried down in the dark. Keep me in the dark.”
But the music was too loud, and God can only hear so many pleas. As their gazes burned out from the center like a stuck film reel, the spinners gripped each other and locked into their unceasing velocity for as long as they could bear.