I Am The We
By Elizabeth Heald
Janet Ann Hinkle is planning a family vacation. Cell phone in hand, she sits in her kitchen and imagines the sun. She envisions her toes in warm sand while she sips a Mai Tai and her children frolic in tropical water. Great blue-sheeted waterfalls, schools of brightly striped fish, the looming peaks of a Hawaiian volcano covered in mosses and grass. She entertains these images even as they conflict with the smooth-jazz that blasts into her ear. She’s been on hold for eleven minutes and has to wait three more before she’s finally connected.
“Hello,” Janet says. “Hello? Are you there?”
“I’m here. Thanks for choosing StayPut.”
“I’m interested in booking.” Janet’s fingers drum the counter. “Are you still running the trial offer?”
“How many in your party?”
“Two adults, two children,” she says. “May eleventh through the eighteenth. That’s our Spring Break.”
“Checking to see if I have four stations left in the same area together. I assume you’ve been online and scrolled through the literature on how it all works?”
“Right,” Janet says. “The whole virtual thing.”
“Looks like I have three travel stations in a row and one more nearby. Do you want to book?”
Janet is quiet. Decisions are hard, the finality of them.
“I have other calls waiting.”
“Just give me a second.” Janet reaches for her wine glass, filled to the brim with a cheap chardonnay. She can feel all her good energy leaking, like someone’s pulling the filling out of a cherished stuffed bear. She watches a stinkbug climb the far wall and decides she should shower. It’s best to make these sorts of decisions once you are shampooed and clean. After the shower she can sit down at the laptop and book the vacation. Perhaps it could even be a family activity, all of them seated around the computer, providing input and building a plan for time spent together. But probably not.
“I’ll have to call you back,” she says to the representative and hangs up.
Janet goes back to watching the stinkbug. Her life, she decides, is in a state of malaise. There’s laundry sifted in with the dishes, children’s incomplete homework shuffled in with the bills. The cat has leukemia, the goldfish has tuberculosis, and it’s been almost two weeks since the dog ran away. Janet lets this thought sink in. She gives herself permission to accept the fact that she envies the dog. She imagines he hopped a freight train bound for Mexico and is drinking margaritas in a grass hut by some waves.
Across the room her son has fallen asleep at the kitchen table. His head lies on his math book and drool from his braces forms a damp spot on the page. She can’t recall if she reminded him to take his meds and worries that the oversight might have been intentional. One of the side effects to the medication is bedwetting and she is tired of changing the sheets of a fifteen-year-old, narcoleptic or not. Adjusting her posture and drinking her wine, Janet assures herself that she wouldn’t allow a domestic irritation to impinge on her son’s health. As her therapist has pointed out, her disappointment is with the wet sheets and not with her child.
“Jake, Sweetie,” she says. “Love-bug.” She brings her face down close to his. “Did you take the pills I set out on your dresser?” She lets her fingers trace the swirls of his carroty hair.
Jacob’s response is a grunt and a nod.
“Finish your assignments then. Spring Break is around the corner and you don’t want to be doing homework on our trip.”
Jacob picks up his pencil, but his face remains down on the page. “The vacation,” he says. “Doesn’t sound like a vacation.”
“A vacation is what you choose to make it,” Janet says. “It’s who you’re traveling with and not where you go. We are the vacation. The vacation is us.”
Jacob turns his head on his math book. “I don’t get what you’re saying,” he says. “Is that even a thing?”
“It’s a thing if I say it,” Janet says. “I just made it a thing by saying the words.”
Janet stands in the shower. She watches the hot drops of water hit the chilled side of her wine glass. Her therapist would not approve of her day drinking. He would also question delaying decisions until she is clean. She steps out of the shower and regards herself in the vanity mirror, takes in the landscape of her body- the delicate droop in her breasts, her stomach with its slight abdominal swell. She holds her cellphone up to the glass and snaps a picture then deletes it and calls her husband, something she almost never does at this time of day as his job stresses him out.
“Hon,” Hugo says when he answers, “I’m eternally busy. Whatever it is, I’m sure it can wait.”
“I know you’re swamped,” she says, though she’s certain he’s most likely gambling online at mybookie.com.
“I will call you back when I’m able,” Hugo says.
“Hugo, I’ve decided to book us this trip. I think we should go.”
“Go?” Hugo asks. The sound he makes is like the quiet passing of gas, a small fart-like eruption that snorts out of lips.
“Well, not leave but you know, head out. I don’t know how to put it.” She turns and looks at her backside in the mirror as she talks to her husband, thinking how strange it is to be naked and have his voice in her ear. “It fits our budget,” she says. “It’s basically free.”
“Hon, I have two words: guinea and pig. We’re having enough trouble around our house with animals, let’s not join their ranks.”
“My therapist thinks a trip is a good idea, something we need,” Janet says, knowing it is a little untrue. Her therapist thinks that a vacation is needed, but believes it should be taken with him, Dr. Wills, and not Hugo. He has prescribed an adventure between two clinging beings, vacationing, not as patient and psychological healer, but as a fledgling romantic unit giving a new thing a fair chance.
“You’re just bored,” Hugo says. “Find something constructive to do. Make some signs for the dog.”
“My therapist thinks there are things I’m not looking at,” Janet says. “Things like the absence of love.”
“Just because you can’t see it or feel it, doesn’t mean it’s not there,” Hugo says. “We’ve been married fifteen years, where’s the absence in that?”
“I don’t know,” Janet says. “It’s just something that resonated.”
“I’ve got to go,” Hugo says again. “They’ve got me by the balls here. Work me to the bone.”
“OMG, Mom.” Janet’s daughter Enid is standing outside the bathroom as she exits. “That’s like your third shower today. You think the world’s made of water?” Enid is dressed for ballet in leotard and tights, the ribbons of her toe shoes tied together and slung over her shoulder. Her hair is a disheveled bun.
“Remember what we say about beeswax in this family? How each little bee should be minding their own?”
Enid follows her mother down the hall. “FYI, Mom, bees are going extinct.” She flops down on the couch and begins to gnaw on one of the toe shoes.
“Enid Marie,” Janet says. “Those shoes are for dancing, not for chewing.” Janet examines the odd contents of the directive she has given her daughter, thinking that it should be an obvious thing.
“IYO,” Enid says. She removes the shoe but still sucks on the ribbon whose edge is unraveling.
“IYO?” Janet asks.
“In. Your. Opinion.”
Janet sighs. She checks her watch then opens the front door to shout for the dog. Every once in a while she does this, half-hoping her voice will reach him in his path of flight and half-hoping it won’t. She imagines him trotting along with his leashes and chew-toys packed-up in a rolling plaid suitcase that he pulls with his tail. She likes to think that he joined the crew of a freighter bound for Ireland and is touring the castles and pubs.
“He’s probably dead,” Enid says, her statement encumbered by the ribbon in her mouth. Janet focuses on her daughter, eyes adjusting from the bright outside light to the dim of the house.
“Jennifer Matthew’s dog got hit by a car and whoever hit it threw the dog in a ditch. They didn’t find him for weeks.”
“I’m just being realistic. The dog was barely recognizable by the time her dad found him, but he brought it home and buried it in their back yard anyway. She said it was TG. Totally Gross.”
“I’d like you to be more positive,” Janet says. “And get that goddamn ribbon out of your mouth before you choke.”
Enid spits the ribbon out. “OMG.”
Janet considers her use of the word goddamn and is disappointed. According to Dr. Wills, oral fixations are the fault of the parent and not the child. Janet takes the toe shoes from Enid, drying the damp ribbon with the hem of her shirt.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I guess it just feels like we all need a break.”
“BTW,” Enid says. “This trip you’re planning, it doesn’t sound like a trip.”
Janet attempts to straighten the bun in her daughter’s hair. She says, “Sometimes we need lemons to make lemonade.”
Enid shrugs at her mother and begins to chew on her fist.
“The problem with vacations is that they cost money,” Janet says. “And at this particular moment, we don’t have a lot.” She reaches down and pulls the suctioned fist from Enid’s mouth.
“Jennifer Matthews is going skiing in the Swiss Alps for Spring Break,” Enid says.
“Well isn’t she lucky?” Janet refrains from saying that Jennifer Matthews is also lucky that she doesn’t have to shell out cash for feline chemo, or narcolepsy prescriptions. Isn’t she lucky that her father’s a neurosurgeon and not a disgruntled financial advisor with a gambling addiction?
“I just don’t see how it’s a vacation if we stay in one place,” Enid says.
“It’s a virtual experience. Our bodies are rooted, but our minds get to go,” Janet says. “No long flights or driving. No seat belts or rest areas. It’s just us at StayPut, experiencing the world in a way that is palpable but not actually real.”
“SLTM,” Enid says.
“Sound lame to me.”
Enid’s ballet carpool honks and Janet sends her daughter out with a reminder to please not chew on Mrs. Fitz’s seatbelts. “She didn’t appreciate it the last time,” Janet says. “They’ve only had the car a few months. It’s brand new.” She waves to Mary Fitz as Enid disappears into the enormous Escalade. The Fitz’s are going to Morocco for Spring Break, vacationing at a resort on the beaches of Tangier.
Janet finds some paper and makes signs for the dog. She tells herself it’s okay to want one thing when you just have the other. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Either way it’s okay because you have what you have even if it’s not what you want. She closes her eyes and again she imagines the sun as it sails balloon-like over a choppy blue sea. She imagines the sand and the seawater. It’s the sort of sand that resembles crushed jewels - a million microscopic ornaments crinkled and strewn-out along a damp shore.
“StayPut,” the agent says when Janet calls back.
“It's me,” Janet says. “I called before? I’m ready to book.” She looks around the house as she says this, seeking some sort of reassurance. The cat licks its pink, exposed skin; the fish spins and floats in its bowl; Jacob grinds his teeth as he sleeps; Enid is off to ballet, but has forgotten her shoes. The furnace kicks in and Janet’s alone with the sound. “I think it will be perfect,” she says into the phone. “A viable option, at least.”
“Such a bargain,” the agent says. “Our trial offer is essentially free, except for some basic terms and conditions, and a couple of minor —.”
“My husband says we’ll be guinea pigs.”
“Guinea pigs who’ll be skydiving off the Leaning Tower of Pisa,” the agent laughs. “Guinea pigs who’ll be having virtual battles at the Coliseum in Rome.”
“And I could tour the Louvre while he visits Mt. Rushmore, but we’d still be together in a virtual pod.”
“Separate pods,” the agent says. “But you would still be existing within the same space.”
“Meaning the warehouse.”
“The Virtual Experimentation Center. But you’ll be able to log onto each other’s adventures as pixelated avatars in separate cyber-stations. It’s so cutting edge.” The agent laughs again. “Take that, Mr. Guinea Pig.”
“It’s not ideal,” Janet says.
“But is that even a thing?”
“It used to be, back when I was younger and had a lot of good looks and some big thoughts in my head.”
“Consider: a conversation with the Dalai Lama.”
“That would be something,” Janet says.
“Costs a little extra, the spiritual consultations. But it sounds like you need to do some figuring out.”
“Is that how I sound?”
“Are you ready to book?”
“I’ve got a bed-wetter. Is that going to be a problem?”
“Two words: constant catheter.”
When Janet hangs up the phone her heart is in her throat, pounding around the epiglottis and the lingual tonsil. After weeks and months of not making a decision she has finally pulled the trigger on things. Feeling powerful, she refills her wine glass and walks by her son, waking him with a swift finger-flick to the ear. He whines, head lifting an inch off the page as his hand clambers up to the injured appendage.
“Something bit me.”
“What?” Janet asks.
“I got stung on the ear. It really hurts.”
“Nothing bit you,” Janet says, face flushing. Her happiness evaporates. “It must have been a bad dream.” She touches his cheek as his head settles back down on the math book. Bringing wine glass to mouth, she pours the gold in, no longer drinking in celebration, but to quell the despair. It is wrong to hurt people, especially your child. Her heart sinks from her throat to her gut. She is a crumbling excuse for a wife and mother. She is a horrible household manager. Only the most repugnant person would flick their child, or carry on with their therapist, or let the dog out of the house and wave as he’s reduced to a small furry point on the horizon. But it's what he wanted, isn't it? By now he’s likely made it to a mountaintop in Lima and is being stroked by a Sherpa named Santo or Juan.
Janet stirs the water in the fishbowl with her finger, creating air bubbles so the sick fish can breathe. She closes her eyes, telling herself it might be okay to do everything wrong so long as you're trying to do the right thing. It’s all about sentiment and where your hearts at. It’s okay to have a narcoleptic tenth grader and a seventh grader with an oral fixation. So long as you love them, it's okay. Janet reasons that this theory also applies to her husband. It doesn’t matter if she loves him all the time or if she even loves him at all, so long as she keeps trying to love him. It’s the intention that counts.
Finding her wine glass empty again, Janet acknowledges it might also be time to face her impulse to self-medicate, head on. And if not head on, then at least give it a side-glance. It’s important to be honest with yourself. Janet sits with this then allows a revision. If you can’t be honest with yourself then you should at least come clean with other people. Which is what brings her to lock herself in the laundry room and call Dr. Wills to give him piece of her mind. And she admits to herself, even as she is dialing, that the idea of giving Dr. Wills a piece of anything makes her excited in a way that’s unfit.
“Dr. Wills, it’s Janet.”
“I want to tell you I booked a vacation for myself and the kids,” she says. “And Hugo.”
“I’m trying to do the right thing,” Janet says.
“That’s the sort of person you are.”
“I am,” Janet says. “I know.”
“That’s my girl,” Dr. Wills says. “Now about this vacation. I think its BS.”
“I’ve been reading about transference and countertransference,” Janet says. “And from what I’ve been reading, it doesn’t sound good.”
“What, between patient and provider? I’ve already told you that, for us, it isn’t a thing.”
“Looking it over, it does seem to apply.”
“The theories of transference and countertransference are annulled in the face of real human need, any adverse impacts being negated by the forces of attraction and what has to happen.”
“What has to happen?” Janet asks.
“Janet,” Dr.Wills says. “What have I told you about our ongoing therapeutic sessions regarding you leaving Hugo to explore the idea of an us?”
“It’s okay to ask questions, but not voice concerns?”
“Right,” Dr.Wills says. “Concerns lead to hesitations. Hesitations lead to self-doubt. Our needs are more important than that. Your needs and my needs are one big important thing, together. They cancel other things out.”
“But the workshop I’m taking on Adult Self-Esteem says that one’s needs are singular and can’t be bound up with the needs of anyone else.”
“We’ve discussed the effectiveness of workshops,” he says. “And what have I told you?”
“They only serve to confuse.”
“You’re confused. And now you’ve booked a vacation. Without me.”
“I’m sorry. I forgot what I was doing.”
“You were trying to do the right thing. But you forgot whom you were doing it for. Instead of doing it for me and for us, you were doing it for your kids and for Hugo, and also yourself, even though your best interests were not represented.”
“You don’t need to guess, Babe. I just told you. I just laid out the facts.”
“If it’s any consolation, we’re not going anywhere in the physical sense.”
“You’re only offering consolations because you feel guilt. As your therapist, I think that’s something you should know.”
“I’m always feeling guilt,” Janet says. “Because of doing things wrong.”
“But we’re working on that. The doing things wrong.”
“I need to take a shower,” Janet says. “I can’t make up my mind.”
“How many showers today?”
“Three is too many,” Dr. Wills says. “It’s an impulse, a compulsion with no reasonable substantiation attached.”
“Being naked in water is the only way I can think,” Janet says. “I can see the whole of myself.”
“This is a work in progress,” Wills says. “This thing that’s between us, let’s not forget that.”
“Sometimes it just feels like sex.”
“Yes, but sex between two people. From a clinical standpoint that’s when it’s best.”
“Maybe I’ll just cancel the vacation.”
“I’m not saying you should. But if you think about me and my needs as they’re bound up into our needs and potential, you’ll figure out what I think is clinically and constructively best.”
Janet stands in the shower, water drumming her body. Her body is like a loofa or squeegee, a tall porous object that absorbs but can’t expel. She imagines giant hands wringing her out. But what is on the inside? Janet looks down and watches viscous rivers of shampoo run through her hands. She lathers every inch of her skin. Even though it’s Hugo’s expensive shampoo, the one he orders online to prevent alopecia, she pours it all out, works it between fingers and toes, behind ears, in the belly button, every underappreciated area. Stepping out of the shower, she is covered in film, wet, slippery and white. She stares at herself in mirror, thinking this is something she should not be doing. She takes a sip of wine and her lips leave a crescent mark of shampoo on the rim of the glass. She steps back in the shower and rinses off.
Jacob is awake when Janet comes out of the bathroom wearing her robe. She watches her first-born, chin slightly doubled and slanted towards his chest, attention transfixed on his phone. There are times she believes the narcolepsy is bogus. Although he’s been diagnosed by two top neurologists and a sleep specialist, Janet fears her son is simply lazy and epically bored. Much like his father. Still she loves him in the way all mothers love their sons, a helpless desperation, a pure emotional intention to create something that can be loved and give love in return.
“Feeling rested?” she asks him. “Homework done?”
Jacob shakes his head without looking up. “I’m almost to level three.”
“You know what we say about video games in this household,” Janet says. “Homework should always get done first.”
“We don’t say that,” Jacob looks up for a fraction. “Only you.”
“Yes, well, I am the we, young man.” Janet tightens her robe and looks around for her wine. “I am the head of this household and that makes me a we.
“We is plural. You are just one.”
Janet stares at her son, feeling shattered, although she knows his reasoning is right. But when he was little he used to hold onto one of her fingers with the whole of his fist. When he was little he would put one small hand on each of her cheeks while he stood on her lap, looking into her face. “I am way more than one,” she says. “Don’t you get smart with me.”
“I’m not getting smart,” Jacob says.
“Yes you are,” Janet says. “Calling me one has already made me feel less.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.” Jacob yawns, his jaw slack, all efforts focused on the game on his phone.
Janet clears her throat and waits, feeling like she needs to be seen. “I’m doing my best for this family.”
“My droid just got eaten.”
“You aren’t listening,” Janet says.
“I don’t get it.” Jacob starts a new game on his phone, then hesitates and looks up at his mother. “Are you crying? Why is your hair wet?”
“I’m going to cancel the vacation.”
“Wait, you actually booked that virtual thing?”
“I’m calling right now. I’m going to cancel. We’re not in any position to go on a trip.” Janet reaches for her phone, sees she’s got a missed text from Hugo; dfrst flnk stk. She takes a flank steak out of the freezer, sets the package in the sink and dials StayPut.
“It’s me again,” Janet says.
“I talk to a lot of people,” the agent says. “Can you differentiate yourself?”
“My husband thinks we’re guinea pigs and I have a kid that wets the bed.”
“Let me guess, you’re having second thoughts?”
“It’s not me. It’s everyone else. They’re having second thoughts for me.”
“Can’t you think for yourself?”
Janet is quiet.
The representative says. “What are these second thoughts?”
“It’s not really second thoughts,” Janet says. “It’s more like first thoughts of disinterest. From the get-go this was something no one wanted to do.”
“Except for you.”
“Plus we have some things domestically that are up in the air. Just outlying things, but they are detrimental.” Even as she says this, Janet realizes these things aren’t really outlying, but lying around in full view. Clumps of hair coming off the radiated cat, the fish now resting on the drawbridge of the castle in his bowl, the dog’s food and water dishes in a corner of the kitchen, untouched for weeks. What if he were to come back while they’re gone? Although she hopes that he doesn’t. She enjoys imagining him off in a better place, being fed regularly, walked, talked to and loved. She is certain this place is Tahiti and that the dog is wearing a straw hat with dark sunglasses, playing a full hand of cards.
“I’d like to go somewhere,” Janet says. “It’s just not working out.”
“And if you could go anywhere right now, Mrs. Hinkle, where would that be?”
Janet closes her eyes and imagines the sun as she thinks it might billow above some sort of beach. It floats like a radiant, deflated balloon. The images whither and she can’t pin them down. “I don’t know,” she says. “Maybe somewhere quiet in the middle of the woods.”
“What’s the definition of virtual?”
Janet thinks for a moment. “Almost, but not exactly or in every way?”
“Now how about tangible?”
“I’m not sure what you mean. That sounds like a fruit.”
Janet stares out the window at the blue in the sky. There’s a bird on a branch of a tree. It has a long scrap of straw in its mouth that she assumes it will add to some nest. Plump pink blossoms dangle from green buds. Insects hover and pollinate. Meanwhile, Jacob has fallen asleep on the couch and his snores saw the room. Janet’s heart sifts through the facts of the matter. She calls a neighbor to look in on the cat, whose hair she believes will grow back, calico and glossy. She drops flakes of food in the bowl for the fish, whose opaque tail will once more wag its body through water. All these things will improve.
And the dog.
Like a tiny, impossible concurrence in the universe, an accidental miracle at that exact moment, it happens: a broad paw scratching at the door, an insistent bark. Janet turns and walks towards the noise, opens the door and there he is, the whole unruly scruff of him on the porch. His hair is matted, his collar a series of shredded blue threads. Janet drops down on one knee and buries her face in the filth of his fur.
“Rigby,” she says. He licks her cheek and trots past her, darting through the kitchen toward the hairless cat. Janet stays on one knee looking out the door. She considers the light of the sun in the pale blue sky. The sun isn’t cellophane and drifting. It is bright and brilliant and fastened securely as a glimmering quintessence, a broad radiating orb. The day seems suddenly lovely, the outside world inviting and warm. Janet stands and walks toward it. Out the door, down the porch steps, and off down the street, looking back every once in a while to be sure no one follows.