My wife, Gin, once knocked gently on my head, as if it were a door. “Hello,” she kept saying. “Hello. Who’s in there?” She and our therapist, Dr. Sherby, laughed a little about this, so I did, too. What fun. Keep knocking on my head like that, like it’s a door, or an egg. I wasn’t going to be the only one not laughing. That’s Human Survival 101. Not that survival is such a prize. But still, you might as well control your exit. Put your own little spin on how you step away from the show once and for all. I laughed as Gin kept knocking on my head, and I said, as if I might really be answering the door, “Just a minute, I’m coming. Hold your horses. No need to break the house down.”
We all just looked at each other. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to be in on the joke. Gin stopped knocking and tucked her hands in her lap.
“I’ll be right there,” I said, in the most distant voice I could manage, as if I were many rooms away—underwater, overseas—crawling toward them as best as I could.
There was nothing wrong with us. We were sweet. We were great. Friends, if that’s what you wanted to call them, said we were the perfect couple. To me, that meant we were alive. We hadn’t died. We didn’t drag each other by the hair from room to room. We observed holidays and put food on the table. We couldn’t fly, we couldn’t live forever, we couldn’t fight off disease when it came. But we lifted the kids into the air and let the wind shape them. Not really, not really, but it could feel that way, and who really knew how the kids had ended up so kind, so free of murder in their hearts? It wasn’t because of us. Certainly not me, anyway.
Those friends, all of them, went the way of the drain. They floated out of their homes and turned to smoke. They rotted in place. None of them lived long, because nobody does. They wandered off into the sunless afterlife, sooner, later, eventually. You can look up their names and you won’t learn much. They packed no bags. Their stuff was probably just thrown away.
It was late April, the eleventh year of my marriage, when I was fired from my job as a teacher at Foley Parochial. Mr. Rubins, the chief anxiety machine at the school, called me into his office. Given the hour, lunch, and his initial silence when I walked in, I knew it couldn’t be good. When is it ever good when someone says they need to talk to you? We should all know better. We should run for the woods when our name is called.
At Foley, I was a floater, preaching the sort of science that doesn’t involve the human being. It’s a personal preference, a diversion from the official curriculum. The human being is a walk-on player in a spectacle that is none of its damned business, even though we get our hands on everything. Crumple it up, try to mate with it or destroy it.
I taught chemistry mostly, specializing in the wrong turns of science, the shit-crazed detours. You dive for knowledge, and the dive is long. It might take a lifetime. It’s something I discussed with my students—the little, scrubbed, colorless beings who hated the planet, themselves, each other, and me especially. How every great insight is something to be embarrassed about later. The shelf life of truth, if it even ever gets on the shelf. What to do with all our wrong ideas about the world and ourselves.
At Foley, I never had my own homeroom, thank God. A little fake family of sweating puppies who thought I would lick their wounds and vomit food into their mouths. Which is not to say that I don’t care for some young people in this world. It’s just a question of the role one plays. The costume worn. I had my own young people at home. I poured myself into them when I could.