Reading Time: ~10 minutes
Harold’s wife is cheating on him. He knows it. It’s obvious. She gets home later than usual. It’s happened for a few months. Her excuse is that the newspaper has had to fire some copy editors, so now the reporters have to look over their own articles. It takes a few extra hours.
“Hours,” she says. “Can you believe that? They make us stay like we don’t have to get to dinner with the family.”
Hours, he thinks. Hours of animal pounding, half-heard words in dark sweaty rooms and coiled sheets. The temporary release from the material world and the monotony of stunted dreams and evaporating ambitions. The escape from life through the thrill of sex and the thrill of betrayal.
He knows. He grins when she tells him.
So they eat at eight instead of five. Ted comes home from middle school at two and Harold comes back from teaching at the university at five. Conversations with Ted have turned into walks in mud. Ted doesn’t want to talk about school, Ted doesn’t want to talk about friends, or girls, or generalized social issues. Ted wants to go into his room and use the computer.
Harold forces himself into oblivion with a book, sitting in the living room and looking at his watch, listening to the scraping of Ted’s fingers on the keyboard echo down the hallway, wondering what he’s typing, what he’s doing. This was the pain of a parent isolated from their child by something simple like a growing social sphere, a bubble that inflates with the swelling world and pushes old influences out to the exterior. Cold, starless space.
Diane comes home at eight, as promised. Dinner is scrambled eggs. Harold feels like an icicle. He’s getting colder and stiffer, freezing in his seat. Ted is picking at his food with his fork, scraping at the plate and seeing only the future instead of the present. Harold can see that Ted thinks, or maybe knows: family dinners are a waste of time. Diane is lively, animated, the gravity of the table, bringing Ted and Harold back from the emptiness of their speculations. She deftly laces them together, knits them into family.
But she’s destroying them, Harold thinks. Destroying the family by seeking a refuge from the vapidity of life. Children become the motion of life when you become a statue in the same job, the same routine. It isn’t fair that her life is still in motion.
His dreams have long since crystallized. Life has chipped away at them, crafting more suitable futures, less idealistic plans, sweeping away the powder of adolescent idealism. And the product is adulthood, maturity. Diane is having an affair. She isn’t grounded. She’s seeking entertainment when entertainment in adulthood, in being a parent, is supposed to be manufactured into packages: vacations and club sports and tepid hobbies and gyms and petty resolutions, things to throw a flimsy veil over the stone of middle age just to give it the semblance of flexibility and versatility.
It isn’t fair.
“And how was work today?” Diane asks.
He wants to ask how her lover was today. Harold and her still had sex, but it was quiet, expectant, predictable, distilled by years of mutual experience. There weren’t surprises. Everything that was acceptable and unacceptable had been calculated into an intricate, mathematical formula. Sex was integrated into part of the week. Without spontaneity, passion was sterilized.
“I’m glad it was good. We had to work late again today. Tom and I were forced to edit the entire issue tonight!”
The name ‘Tom’ is a burning lance, a proper noun in a sea of inconsequential babbling. Tom could be the one. He knew Tom. Young thirties, moustached, a man whose trim, youthful form was still in the process of melting into the ambiguous average body of later life. Tom could be the one.
Harold’s teeth show when he smiles, he presses his knowledge into the expression. He wants to show her that he knows. He knows. Her work wasn’t letting her out late. Tom and her, he thinks. Tom and her in the backseat of the car, their car, Tom on top, a flailing fish in the uncomfortable geometry of car sex, then her on top, hunched over him because the car is small, her hair like a waterfall pouring over Tom’s dark eyes, the sweat from their bodies clouding windows and making them slippery.
Harold wants to jump from the dinner table and run to the car for the evidence, to see the traitorous condensation still lingering on the windows, the stain of sweat still imprinted on the backseat. But he calmly chews the last of his watery eggs and nods politely. He says something, a sentence lost in the whirlpool of small talk that precedes and follows it.
Life is predictable, he thinks as he sips his milk.
More evidence on the computer. Harold finds Diane’s laptop, it’s been left open, her e-mail inbox is on display. An e-mail from Tom. Something vague about the night last night. Very vague. Harold smiles at the glowing proof and closes the laptop quietly. It’s time for bed.
He feels refreshed by Diane’s betrayal. It’s something that he couldn’t predict, not in his years with her, not before their marriage, not after it, a cloud that he could never imagine straying into their bland sky. His hurt is mixed with excitement. This means things would change. Diane and he would have to dig for each other. They had drifted apart, into two separate but coexisting entities, and now they had to connect again. How?
It will start with sex. He felt tingles in his toes, his fingertips, the back of his head, adrenaline: passion blooms again, passion pollinated by pain. Butterflies awaken in his stomach, flapping away ancient dust. It will start with sex. Humans thrive on novelty. Anything becomes stale with repetition. This would be new.
Diane enters their bedroom in her short nightgown. It reflects the pale, orange shine of their reading light. She’s taking out her earrings, taking off her necklace in the efficient, unromantic way of marital disrobing. Harold watches the way the nightgown falls like water over her body.
She’s at the bureau, looking at herself in the mirror, rubbing her eyes with a thumb and a finger. He comes up behind her, watching himself in the mirror, watching his eyes look at his eyes. He slips his hands over her shoulders and gently brings her around to him. Her eyelids flutter in surprise, but a slow smile creases as he presses himself against her and they kiss.
The night is new.
Last night was good, Harold thinks as he walks up the rubber staircase to his classroom. It’s a university with dicks painted on doors, with kids who cling to the baggy jeans and sweatshirts of their youth for a lack of direction, buildings infected with children who are stumbling into adulthood by accident. They grapple old affections and hobbies and resist change. Higher education has become the last bastion for teenage irresponsibility.
Harold teaches Econ 101 to an uninspired group of young men and women, a group whose numbers fluctuate between forty and eighty depending on the day of the week. He watches them drag their feet to the class and yawn their way through lectures with a kind of passive depression. His hopes lie in the one child who pays attention.
“Hello class! Happy Friday!” he exclaims as he sets his briefcase on the table, blinking at the fluorescent lights. He hears a few reverberating snorts in the lecture hall and sees the half-hearted shaking of shoulders. This is the best laughter he can prod out of the generation. His eyes roam over bodies in various states of repose. Some have already pulled hoods over their heads, others are slumped across their foldable desks with eyes unfocused.
He can imagine them going to the class: Econ 101, they grumble to each other. At least we can get it over with in the morning, then go back to sleep. They are one congealed mass representative of a generation that is lost, swimming through the internet, Facebook and Youtube, where politics manifest in a public consciousness that changes daily.
Cool becomes consensus, as always, but consensus is founded on celebrity now. And he knows that celebrity is an interminably rotating term, a halo they all seek. The Internet spawned the idealism of the pale-faced people before him. They don’t think that anyone can be famous, they know. Fame has reached excessive heights, to the point where it is gone before it arrives, where no one knows or cares about quantifying it, they only care to be it, to be famous. They want to be known.
The generation before him is disconnected from him by centuries. They have exponentially advanced into terrifying frontiers of anonymity and progress, progress that achieves acknowledgement but remains intangible. They have reached an understanding with the world that floats in undercurrents of hatred and jealousy and prejudice, emotions helplessly dragged by an undertow of uncertain futures and unnoticed dreams, an undertow that drags productivity to the sand below and drowns it, slowly, gently, permanently. And bubbles of apathy sprout and pop in the froth.
A generation of ADD. A generation conditioned to expecting everything but, in expecting everything, achieves nothing. By the time Harold begins his lecture, half the class is already asleep.
Days pass easily. The weekend has long since developed into a black and white pattern of sleeping and eating and reading and watching TV.
“I have one assignment to do this weekend,” Diane says.
One assignment, Harold thinks. She’s visiting Tom at his house now. Things are spiraling out of control. She will sleep with him in the afternoon and be back by dinner. It will be a knock at the door with a look over the shoulder, a whispered greeting and a careful step into the boundaries of the unknown.
She’ll laugh for Tom like she hasn’t laughed for him, not for a long time, and there will be glitter in her eyes that has long since faded. They’ll watch TV and enjoy it, entangled with each other and eating a light lunch, tired sandwiches thrown together after a lengthy session of lovemaking. Not the individual meals of home, where Harold and her make their food separately, eat separately, and are individuals in watching TV, sitting on a chair and a couch, away from each other, occasionally laughing together, but usually not talking, usually not looking.
The television of marriage, of one body here and one body there, of concentration on the show. The television of scandal, of young love, of two bodies here, of concentration on each other’s limbs and lips. The images blur in his head.
“I love you, too,” she says to him. Their lips touch and she’s out the door.
He is left alone. Ted is somewhere, somewhere that Harold doesn’t remember. A friend’s house. Harold walks up the steps to the bedroom and looks in the mirror there, watches himself watch himself. He looks at the reflection of his reflection.
Things are changing, he thinks. Life meanders its way towards difference. He thought that things went still after marriage, but he was wrong. It almost made him smile. Diane’s affair would change everything. It would change her life, his life, Ted’s life. Their endless desert march would find an oasis.
The mirror, Harold thinks, is not a window for the soul. The soul, Harold thinks, isn’t reflected by our actions, it’s reflected by our thoughts. Thoughts, Harold thinks, are invisible. Thoughts are ghosts that haunt the future.
Ted misses dinner and Diane is away on her assignment with Tom. Harold watches the light wither from the dining room windows and eats alone. The house is cold and empty, huddled in the dark. Somewhere, a clock is ticking. Harold finishes his toast and his yogurt and moves to the kitchen, washing the dishes in slow motion. Time is meaningless to him. He watches the night mask the world. The dishes are clean, but he continues to scrub them.
A car pulls into the driveway and Harold turns around. He hopes that Diane is back, but also hopes that she isn’t. Her absence is something he chews on, a texture he savors. Ted jumps out from the backseat of the car and the car pulls out of the driveway. Ted’s friends and his friends’ parents have become mysteries, apparitions behind sliding glass windshields. Ted never has friends over the house. He says there’s nothing to do. Harold wonders what there is to do anywhere else.
“Hello,” Harold says. The word is stiff in his mouth, a numbness he can’t justify. Since when did his son become a stranger? There was a time when Harold could look at Ted and know his thoughts and his feelings. Now Ted is indecipherable like the rest of humanity.
“Hey Dad,” Ted says. He immediately heads for the cupboard, grabbing a box of cereal, something with violent colors, branded with bubble letters, manufactured into shapes. Harold doesn’t know when cereal ceased to be food and became entertainment, mutating into a box of perverse geometry.
Ted will soon slide into his room and use the computer. Harold knows he’s losing valuable time with his son, but everything feels tense and strained. Does Ted sense it? Ted is humming a song. He is oblivious to the calculations. Harold becomes frantic, grinding expressions and questions to dust.
“Did you have a fun time?” The end product is far from satisfactory, flawed, rushed, haltingly delivered.
“I had a fun time.” Ted has filled a bowl with his bright cereal. He pours milk into it. Harold watches the foreign shapes rise to the top of the bowl, neon buoys in a white sea. Ted walks out of the kitchen.
September peels away into the colors of Autumn. The highest score on the first test of Econ 101 is an 89, followed by an 81, then a chasm opens and next highest score is a 73. The average is a 70.
“Where did I go wrong?” Harold asks the silent audience, aimlessly pacing in front of their drained eyes. “This is not good, this is not promising.”
He casts a glance to the projection on the whiteboard. Last year, the average for this test was 75. The year before, it was a 79. Harold doesn’t want this to be evidence for the deterioration of the next generation’s intelligence, but he has trouble thinking of it in any other way.
The kids have been stimulated, electrocuted, by their electronics. He sees them in the elevator with their ipods, walking to classes with their ipods, separate and alone, their shoulders inflated with the grandeur that their music allows them. Each one is their own world, treading on their own feet, skipping into a ruby dawn where pleasantries have withered from the blight of a solipsistic existence.
It’s conditioning, Harold thinks. They’ve been conditioned to ridiculous rules. Or is that his sense of detachment from the future? Maybe he’s becoming cynical as he climbs the hill of generations and looks down below. His eyes stray back to the grades. Maybe. Maybe not.
Someone coughs during his reprimand, making him forget his indignation. He sighs, rounds his desk, and looks at the day’s lecture notes. He has to start again. He has to pull the dead dreams off each and every one of them. He has to walk with them from their graves and hope that some of them make it to the horizon of reality.
It’s raining when Diane comes back for the night. The headlights drip in the driveway and the wheels hiss on yellow leaves. The autumn drizzle hushes the sound of the engine cutting, the car door slamming, the faint jingle of keys and the squeal of the front door. Harold has relished the thought of her coming back so late. It’s almost nine this time. Things with Tom have progressed to unforeseen heights. Would she confess?
Harold knows that Tom couldn’t possibly be pleasing her that much. They were having sex once a day, sometimes twice. Each time was amazing. But she was still cheating on him. Was it an emotional connection, an emotional betrayal, more than a physical one? Did people cheat on each other because they were bored or because they felt alone? Did monotony isolate people?
They have French toast for dinner. Ted retires early to bed because he has a test. Harold and Diane bid him good luck and they retreat to the bedroom. Harold watches her reflection as she changes out of her work clothes into her nightgown, as she cocks her head to the side and takes out her earrings, slips off her necklace.
“I know,” he says to her, watching her reflection carefully.
She doesn’t stop changing. “Know what?” she asks.
“I know,” he says.
She finally stops and turns around. “Know what?”
“About… about why you’re really late from work.”
There’s a pause, a black hole in the conversation that devours the light, the room, their faces, and then spits it back out, a regurgitated reflection of reality.
“What do you mean? I told you the paper isn’t doing well these days. I just have to stay a few more hours.”
“Hours with Tom,” he says. The name is the foundation of his knowledge, of her secret, and he watches her as he drops it.
“Hours with… Harold, what are you talking about? Tom and I are part of the staff that’s still at the paper. We’re there and so are fourteen other people. We all have to stay late. You can come and see if you want.”
She looks at him. He looks at her reflection until his eyes slide right into hers, a liquid blue that trembles and quakes. He blinks slowly. His mind abruptly falls out from the back of his head and tumbles down onto the floor. He loses his balance and staggers onto the bed. The room closes in around him. No escape, no release.
“What? What is it?” Her voice is wind. The rain scrapes the windows.
Truth. He feels himself expanding. He knows she’s telling the truth. His truth was the lie. Life was going to be the same. Life was one long road of stasis. It was impossible to change the future when the future was identical to the present. It was all the same.
He puts his head in his hands and starts to cry.