Issue 4

The Picture Show

 · Fiction

You are born on December 24th. The close proximity of your birthday and Christmas results in your never receiving enough presents for either occasion. In kindergarten a boy hits you in the head with a small rock, leaving a large cut above your right eyebrow. Upon adamant refusal of stitches, due to your rational fear of needles, you are left with a large scar in the shape of Tennessee. In all, the event is not catastrophically traumatizing, but it has the lasting effect of causing you to flinch whenever anything is thrown in your direction. These implications carry over into Little League Baseball, where you ride the bench for three-plus years because you can’t catch a fly ball. In the fifth grade you pass a note to a girl in homeroom asking her to be your girlfriend. Tragically unaware of the vast social and economic differences between the two of you, you fail to see that she will say no — that she must say no. And she does, for all of those reasons and more.

Your family has problems, but that doesn’t seem to be out of the ordinary. At least that’s what the family therapist says as you sink interminably into the reeking leather seats of his office. A bond grows between you and your mother. Your father says she spoils you, but you can’t seem, or want, to do anything about it. An intense man, your father demands perfection because that is what his father asked of him.

* * *

Getting to touch a breast for the first time, the question arises in your mind: What is all the hubbub about? This moment of indifference causes a brief period of sexual ambivalence that lasts a total of six days. The question is forgotten when a girl shows you what all the hubbub is about, among mildewed mops and boxes of rat poison in a janitor’s closet at a high school homecoming dance.

In your third year of high school, a teacher says you have a gift for history. You think he is most likely confusing this with the gift of a good memory. Above average marks in school satisfy your father, who understands that his words no longer carry the resonance they once did. A painfully kind woman, your mother says she will always love you, no matter what kind of marks you get in school. The summer going into senior year you get your first serious girlfriend. You meet at a house party and end up sharing a cigarette on the back porch. She says she’s liked you since last summer and you kiss each other. You like her, but sense that this means very little because the entire relationship is predicated on chance: the chance you went to the same high school, the chance she decided to come to the party, the chance you think smoking a cigarette makes you look cool — and the chance she was born a girl. Nevertheless, you find yourself liking her more and more each day. Three months in she tells you she loves you. That night you lose your virginity and immediately go and tell all your friends, who congratulate you. A week later she dumps you because the whole school found out you slept together. This is a mistake you will make four or five times in your life, with various women.

It’s June, and high school graduation. The valedictorian gives a speech about the future, water scarcity in developing countries, and living life without regrets. The ceremony is overshadowed by a student who streaks across the stage, naked, diploma in hand, shouting something that’s lost in the shrieks, hoots, and flashes. You’ve gained acceptance to a lot of good colleges, according to magazines and books. The decision isn’t a hard one to make when a state university offers a full scholarship.

* * *

The first year of college is spent drinking a lot and studying hard to get above-average marks. You make friends easily and see social situations as opportunities rather than difficulties. Intramural sports appeal to you because you lack the motivation and discipline for collegiate-level sports, and fail to recognize the truth of all truths: that practice is everything. On a whim, you pick up the guitar for a semester and play at a few open mics, only to abandon the hobby due to its inability to enhance your sex life. All in all, college doesn’t seem that much different from high school, except for the girls and the drinking.

The next year you decide to study abroad in London because you can’t speak a foreign language. The experience has a profound effect on you: art is more interesting, the sun is brighter, the rain darker, the women are more beautiful, and the world seems bigger. These people aren’t like the people at home; these are your people. You are invigorated by life and its opportunities and fall in love with three girls before returning home — poor, spoiled, and disillusioned. You will later understand this seemingly momentous life-changing period as nothing more than your semester abroad, where you failed to see anything of cultural significance: a play at the Globe, a painting at the Tate Modern, or a service at Westminster Abbey.

You graduate, missing cum laude by half a point. This doesn’t matter, but it still bothers you for some reason. The following year you take a job in Boston, where you sit at a desk all day and enter numbers into a database. You get glasses after having trouble seeing the numbers on your computer screen. In a few years you save enough money to buy an apartment. You begin to accrue permanent evidence of your existence: stacks of old magazines, more dinner plates than you will ever need, and more than two sets of bedsheets. Things continue to fill the apartment with regularity. After two years you become attracted to the secretary at your job. She’s been working there for five years, and only now did you pay any attention to her. She wears cute skirts and puts seasonal flowers in her hair. This is what attracts you to her in the first place.

You ask her on a date and she says no at first; then she agrees after you tell her about how you like the flowers in her hair. You are both experienced with relationships and manage to avoid all the major pitfalls young couples fall into. She doesn’t try to move into your apartment. She doesn’t ask if you would still date her if she had no arms or no legs. She does like to go on walks, and she does let you smoke after sex. You like these things about her, and you find yourself thinking about the future. She makes work a little more bearable and sitting at a desk for nine hours a day doesn’t seem like such a bad prospect after all. By now you’ve figured out how to appear busy at work without having to actually do anything. The boss likes you, and you begin to get the feeling that he doesn’t do anything all day, either.

On your two-year anniversary your girlfriend tells you she’s pregnant. Instead of having an abortion, you both agree to keep the child. You sell your apartments and put a down payment on a modest house in the suburbs. Flying to Ohio, you meet her parents and tell them the news. They are happy, and you assure them you are making arrangements. Her father nods with approval; he looks relieved. Your mother is overjoyed at the news that she will be a grandmother and immediately starts knitting two sweaters: blue if it’s a boy and pink if it’s a girl. A month later the ceremony is held in a small chapel in Rhode Island. You can’t remember the last time you were in a church. You don’t invite any of your friends from high school, for fear that they won’t get along with your friends from college or work.

Your first child is born. Coinciding with his birth, your father suffers a massive heart attack. You are forced to choose between going to your father’s deathbed or your son’s birth. Your car breaks down on I-95, causing you to miss both events. Your mother receives a hefty sum of money from the insurance company and moves to Florida. You only visit your father’s grave in Cape Cod once. You mumble a few words and try to cry, but nothing comes. It’s too nice of a day. The sun is out and reflecting off the shiny gravestone and out on the ocean you can see seagulls following a trawler. You wish it were raining. Later on you will tell yourself that if it had been raining you would have cried, and maybe even said something.

You still work at the same job, but you’re the boss of the branch now. Entering numbers into a database is still your primary objective. Your glasses are thicker now, and your hair is a little thinner. The old boss has retired and moved down to North Carolina, where he lives with his wife and two golden retrievers. You have two children now. The boy is fifteen and the girl is ten. Your wife is wider in the hips and you have a gut. Where you used to sleep naked together, you now both wear matching plaid pajamas to bed. You only have sex in the dark and when the kids are at sleepovers. Later on you won’t have sex at all, and you will wish you had done more things with more people.

You’re saving up for the kids’ education and retirement. Your wife doesn’t work anymore. You’ve developed a bad back from sitting at a desk all day. The doctor prescribes pills, rest, and relaxation. Every Thanksgiving you fly to Florida with your wife and kids to visit your mother, who is still knitting things in blue and pink. On Christmas you go to Ohio. The children love their grandparents and you know this is a good thing.

Your boy is a high school track star and gets a scholarship to a good college. With some of the money he will save you, you buy him a brand-new car as a graduation present. He thanks you with an earnest hug and speeds out of the driveway. You’re not sure he understands the value of money. In a few years your daughter wants to go to college for music. You oblige her, agreeing to pay for the tuition and rent for her apartment. She starts seeing a guy you don’t approve of, but your wife says there isn’t anything to be done about it. You’re not sure they understand what monsters men can be.

* * *

You are working on Christmas Eve and your birthday. Your wife calls and tells you to come home. The kids have just arrived, and everyone is waiting for you. You tell them you will be home soon. They have planned a surprise birthday party for you. It’s your sixtieth this year: the big one. All your old friends and coworkers will be there. You know this because you overheard your wife talking about it when she thought you were asleep. She thinks this is what you want. And as they are all waiting with their party hats and noisemakers, in the darkness of your home, waiting for you to come through the front door, all you want to do is work — to stay at your desk and keep entering numbers into a database — hoping, eventually, that it will all add up to something.

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