Saturday, June 22, 2013

First do no harm: medical stories

Look at me 

"Which looks clearer: 1 or 2?"

Anna concentrated as Dr. Bartholomeu clicked the lenses into place, first 1, then 2. The tiny translucent black worms that haunted her vision throughout the day swam as she focused on the pyramid of capital letters and numbers. 
The truth was that they both looked the same.
"Um... maybe 1? But it's close."
Dr. Bartholomeu didn't seem surprised by this. Perhaps many of his patients said the same thing. Perhaps it was the correct answer.
The office felt too casual; she had expected more formality, more solemn pomp or something. There had been no other patients in the waiting area when Anna had arrived for her appointment at 4 p.m. on a Thursday. Dr. Bartholomeu and the receptionist, Monique, had been joking, and Monique was wearing jeans and not sitting behind the desk. Dr. Bartholomeu was young, probably fresh out of medical school or residency or whatever optometrists have to do before they start seeing patients in their very own offices next to the LensCrafters store.
Monique was comically outgoing. In the short five minutes that Anna spent filling out her form, Monique had asked Anna whether she was single (she was), and had shared, out of the blue, that she had a baby but was dating someone who wasn't the father. She had solicited Anna's opinion on which used car to buy, the silver one (the color Monique wanted) that had 80,000 miles on it, or the beige one (yuck) with only 16,000 miles on it. Monique had seemed to be leaning toward the silver one, so Anna told her to go for that one. "It'll make you happier, even if it's not the most practical choice," Anna had said, uncharacteristically.
Now, sitting in front of the eye chart, in the chair with the steampunk-y lens contraption attached to it, Anna picked up on a contrived quality to Dr. Bartholomeu's easygoing "buddy" manner. He asked questions but didn't listen to the answers, and his jokes seemed pre-cooked and re-warmed.
"So you do data entry, huh? I guess that means a lot of time staring at the computer." He was reading what she'd written on the line after "Occupation" on her form. He said "data entry" with the slightest condescending lilt, a fake enthusiasm that only revealed his boredom and disdain.

His past unfurled in front of her, spelled out like the orderly ziggurat of letters on the eye chart. East Coast prep school, following in the footsteps of his illustrious father, a mother who would never think any girl he brought home was good enough for him, college someplace with Gothic buildings and autumn leaves, a fraternity.  

This office in Roanoke was only temporary. He didn't belong here, and he didn't want to be here. Just a year or two, and then on to a real city with traffic and skyscrapers, taxis ferrying him and his equally anointed friends to crowded wine bars or faux-Irish pubs to meet girls with graduate degrees and straightened hair and bleached smiles. City streets, stepping confidently in front of cars as part of a boisterous herd ignoring the "Don't Walk" signal, car exhaust illumined by headlights, his Armani trenchcoat flapping in the wind and his laugh a plume of frost in the winter air. 

But for now he tries to ignore the cows on the hillside when he drives to the airport to fly to his parents' house in Philadelphia.
Anna found him repugnant but wanted his approval, wanted to show him that she wasn't some hick who was only good for drone jobs.
"It's my summer job. I study anthropology at Virginia Tech."
Actually, her major was Sociology, but "anthropology" sounded better.
She could have said anything, could have said she was training to become a rodeo clown, or a Druidic priestess. It didn't matter. She was the last patient of the day, and his elite boredom was seeping through his populist act.
"Mmm hmm." He wheeled his chair over so that he was facing Anna. He shined a narrow beam of light into her left eye, peeking at her eyeball through the lens. "Look straight ahead."
Anna's eyelashes brushed against the lens. She could see a faint reflection of her eye at the same time that she saw the beam of light.

Just a few minutes ago, before he had led her into the room with the eye chart in it, Dr. Bartholomeu had won a tiny but decisive victory over Anna. He'd walked into the little anteroom where Monique was administering the air-puff test that Anna ordinarily both dreaded and enjoyed: the terrible anticipation, then the freshness of that waft of air on her bare eye, and an adrenaline rush afterward. This time, however, Anna was concerned -- Monique didn't seem to know what she was doing. (Anna wondered, Should a receptionist be aiming part of a machine at my eye? Is she trained for this?) Monique kept adjusting the device, and at one point she actually laughed and said, "Oops." "Oops" was not something Anna had ever wanted to hear in any sort of medical context.
"Look right at me," Monique had said, and then Dr. Bartholomeu had walked in, and Anna's glance had subconsciously flickered over to him instead. "Keep looking at me," Monique had said sternly. Dr. Bartholomeu's back was turned, but Anna was sure that he had been smirking, that he'd been thinking she had been checking him out. Thinking that of course this plain bumpkin couldn't resist checking out the gilded preppy guy from the Big City. That wasn't the case at all, and Anna tried to make this clear with her aloof, objective demeanor throughout the rest of the visit.

Now, suddenly, Dr. Bartholomeu reached over and pressed a fingertip to Anna's browbone, lifting her eyelid slightly to get a better look at the entire eye as he continued to shine the light at her.
Anna realized that he touched her skin gingerly, almost hesitatingly. She wondered if he was pleasantly surprised by the rose-petal texture of her eyelid.

As he lifted the other lid and peered into the eye, she thought about her trepidation at being touched in general. She'd dated a few guys, but had never had sex. It boggled her mind, the thought that people did that.

Last week she was standing in line at Rite-Aid buying saline solution for her contact lenses. The guy in front of her was buying a six-pack of Miller Lite, a two-liter bottle of Diet Pepsi, and a package of Trojan condoms. He laid his merchandise on the counter. She noticed that he was sly, respectfully placing the other items in front of the Trojans to avoid brandishing them to the other people in line, but he was also matter-of-fact, as if they were milk or bread, something he bought often, a necessity. She'd stared at him, at his tall, strapping form and his unexceptional but friendly countenance, jeans, a baseball cap. Some regular guy.

Images like scenes she'd seen on late-night cable at her parents' house flashed in her mind, bodies in motion bathed in a red light, and it seemed incredible that he would use these, that he would unroll them onto his penis and penetrate someone. Unbelievable. Too weird to imagine here in the brightly lit, humdrum environs of the Rite-Aid.
The idea that she might have sex someday was abstract, like when she was little and a grown-up would ask what she wanted to be when she grew up. She usually said, "A ballerina," or later, "A veterinarian," but she never really believed herself, even then.
It wasn't that she didn't want to be touched. Many moments during the day, in class or at the dining hall, or lying in the loft bed in her dorm room, or at her data-entry summer job, her mind strayed to vague sexual daydreams. It was always a rough outline because she was unable to fill in the details. She thought in terms like "making love;" her daydreams were gauzy with good cinematography, the light always that golden tone of Tuscan sunsets.

She had nagging questions about many of the technicalities. Furthermore, she was afraid that in real life her body would somehow seem abnormal or repugnant to the other person, especially if he had been with other, better women before. What would her body feel like to someone else? What would it feel like to a guy having sex with her? What would he think about the texture of her skin, the way her skin and hair smelled, the way her lips tasted? She was sure she would do something wrong, commit some breach in etiquette or protocol, that she would just not do it right.
Anna felt a little sorry for doctors, having to touch her and other people as part of their jobs. They had that in common with prostitutes, it occurred to her now. She had never been to a gynecologist, out of fear and embarrassment, but she'd had to get a rudimentary physical before attending college. The nurse had given her a quick, brisk breast exam. The nurse, kneading each breast, had expertly distracted Anna's attention from her hands by making small talk and telling Anna how to perform self-exams. The nurse was cheery, and ignored the humiliating moment when Anna's nipples instinctively hardened on impact.
Even going to the dentist had always seemed to Anna a mildly and mutually humiliating event. As she lay in the dentist's chair, her teeth bared obscenely like a hostile gorilla, the dentist would sigh through his surgical mask and peek at the watch above the elastic band of his rubber glove to see how much longer he had to do this until he could go home.
It wasn't this way for everyone, surely. There was a place at the mall, a Chinese massage and acupuncture clinic filled with cots and potted bamboo. One afternoon Anna had stood in the mall corridor across from the clinic, leaning on a railing, watching what was happening inside. An elderly Chinese man massaged the legs of an obese middle-aged man. The Chinese man hadn't seemed repulsed, stroking the man's calves lovingly. Maybe the Chinese man was thinking that the obese man didn't get lovingly touched enough, and maybe was trying to make up for this.

There were more minor defeats before the end of the visit with Dr. Bartholomeu. He asked whether Anna wanted a prescription for contacts only or if she wanted one for glasses, too (she didn't; she looked terrible in glasses). She could have sworn he'd smirked when he'd said, "That's probably a good thing -- if you wore glasses, they'd be pretty thick." Four-eyes, nerd. And later, when trying out a pair of contacts in her new (worsening, as always) prescription, she'd attempted something like a low-level joke after putting the new lenses in, saying, "Ah! Now I can see," as if she'd been bat-blind before putting the new contacts in. He'd smirked again, conveying that it was a waste of time for her to venture anything personal, anything other than, "1 looks better, definitely 1," or, "Looks like A...F...2?...D, or maybe O..."
She drove home wearing a sample pair of contacts in her new prescription. The world was clearer, everything sharply delineated; each leaf was crisp, even on the faraway trees. A flock of swallows pirouetted across the sky and alighted on a power wire.

Watching the birds and their antics, her vision clouded over with despicable tears. She hadn't told Dr. Bartholomeu about the phantom black worms that plague her vision, and that she's sure are abnormal. Or about her fear, irrational but real, that she's slowly going blind. She hadn't felt close enough to him to be able to say something like this. 


A few minutes after one o'clock on a Friday, she was sitting in a doctor's office alone, naked from the waist down with a rumpled sheet of gauze over her lap for the illusion of modesty. She had never been to a gynecologist, but she could not find the contraceptive sponge inside her after hours of disgraceful poking and prodding in a restroom stall at work with a make-up mirror; this was a panicked last resort. Her appointment had been at 12:45, but the doctor was running late; they'd worked her in at the last minute, so she waited in uncomplaining patience. 

The walls were a dusty pink, and there was a framed mass-produced photo of a child holding a bouquet of flowers with the corny caption, "Secret Admirer." She looked out the eleventh-floor window at the generic office-park buildings and the sluggish traffic. She rested her bare feet on a ledge as she sat on the politely gauze-covered reclining chair. She looked at two Kermit-green pads covering the dimples where you rest your feet as the doctor examines you. The pads were printed with ads for some sort of pharmaceutical solution. She breathed in and out, trying to calm down. She thought, "Man, they'll stick ads on anything," trying to make herself laugh. She closed her eyes and tried to hear some of the music they had made love to.


His name was Dr. Siegel, but until she took a business card on her way out of the appointment, she had envisioned it as being spelled "Dr. Seagull." Waiting for him, the sheet over her lap, she looked down and saw that her black lace-edged panties were crumpled on top of the jeans she had hurried out of, not having been sure when someone would enter the room. She thought they looked vulgar, carelessly on display like that. She thought of getting up and off the reclining chair to stuff them under her jeans, but she didn't want to be standing, even with the sheet in front of her, when he came in. She had agreed to see a male doctor under the circumstances (it was Friday, doctors' offices wouldn't be open again till Monday, and the sponge had already been inside her past the 30-hour limit; the spermicide could be toxic if left inside her for another day or two, the box had said).

When she'd put it in her, it had gone in so easily. She hadn't known her own body, but the thing had slipped right into place. It had been comforting, made her body seem knowable. Like she was a simple doll made of simple parts. Later, when she couldn't find the sponge, the terror had somehow gone beyond what it should have been, passing into something existential. Reaching into the unknowable abyss of her own body, she had groped in the darkness, finding nothing. It felt inevitable.


He walked in calm, looking at his clipboard. Asked her why she was here today. In a clear, articulate, teacher's-pet voice, she told him that she was unable to remove her contraceptive sponge. When she explained about the time limit on the box, the way she said it sounded educated, logical. She wasn't a crying dumb mess. As a medical professional, he appreciated that, her logic. There was a tremor in her voice, though.

He said, "We'll get it out. Don't worry."

She babbled then, about how she knew it was a weird reason to come in, how she was sorry to have to make a last-minute appointment. Still looking at the clipboard, he asked her when she'd had her last Pap smear.

There was a pause, and some new crackle in the air. She told him she'd never had one.
"I've actually never been to a gynecologist." She sounded ashamed, as if she'd had to delicately insult his religion.

Not missing a beat, and without admonishing her, he casually encouraged her to make an appointment for a Pap smear the following week. With the sponge and its toxins having been inside her for so long, the results would probably come back abnormal if he did it today. "We'll do the breast exam and the whole deal." He could see that she was blushing. It was easy to see because her skin was fair, translucent. He could see everything going on underneath.

He told her to lean back in the chair, and when she did, it was obvious she had not done this before.

"Bring your bottom all the way to the edge," he said, using an innocuous word, a word that a parent would use with a child, instead of something crude like "butt" or something as alarming or snicker-inducing as "buttocks." Somehow this comforted her, the word and the warm, soft way it ended with an "m" sound, like "mom."

The sheet was long, and had been puddled up over her feet when he'd come in. She ruched it up above her knees, bunching it up so that he could see to do what he had to do but she could not see herself. He told her to open her legs. Trembling with uncontrollable small muscle spasms, she opened them a little but not enough. So he had to ask her to open them wider. He did this in as even and friendly a voice as he could muster.

He explained everything to her logically. In his rubber-gloved hand, he held up the gleaming silver device he would insert into her, that would open her up for him. She was 29, and had seen such devices in movies, mostly comedies about pregnancy, but he explained it to her as if she hadn't, without condescension. He inserted the cold metal thing into her, and saw that her muscles tensed even more. He saw that her hands formed fists that gripped the sides of the chair. Her breathing accelerated to an almost alarming, nearly histrionic pace. It was an extreme reaction that belied her earlier attempted rational-patient manner when explaining why she was there.

Why was she there? Not the medical explanation, but the other one?

He glanced at her face once and saw that it was contorted in a grimace, an expression of physical and emotional torment out of proportion with what was happening in the room. Her body shook as he used his gloved fingers and plastic sticks to expertly remove the sponge and drop it into the lidded wastebasket nearby. Her heart rate was high, and she made something that could only be described as a soft crying sound.

He cleaned some of the spermicide out of her, then squirted a cold gel into his hand to insert his finger and feel around her uterus, pressing his lubricated finger up against her belly from within. He assured her that everything felt perfectly normal.

As he worked, he wondered about her. Because he was a human and not a medical machine.

The sponge meant she'd had sex, or had at least anticipated having sex. He wondered: As nervous as she was here, now, at her first and long-overdue (and only because of a minor emergency) visit to a gynecologist, what had she been like during sex? He imagined that her expression now might be an indication of how she had been hours earlier, with whomever she had been with -- or at least, how she had been internally. She'd probably tried to pretend that everything was fine. He saw the black lace-edged panties. She was a girl who would wear lacy black things in bed. This was a clue about her sexuality, her eagerness to be conventionally "sexy," to fit a man's fantasy.

She was like a fragile, frightened bird here in the examining room. What could explain this weirdly amplified fear? He guessed it went back to a hyper-religious upbringing, maybe a strict or sexually shaming parent. There was the exaggerated modesty with the sheet. The flutter of apologies for the last-minute appointment and its bizarre circumstances. Yeah, it was probably something like that.

He felt that the fog of his recent existence had temporarily cleared, and that here in this room was everything.

Here in this room was religion and guilt. Here in this room was desire, which had impelled her to buy and use a contraceptive sponge, to wear and remove lacy black underthings.

Here in this room was a person who was terrified of having anything inside her, yet who had apparently let someone in. Why?

Why else? To be loved.

He thought about biology and dogma. He thought about the cycle that keeps the human race going, and the one that tries to keep it in check.

At only one point during the visit had his professional demeanor slipped. In his line of work, he often saw women in trouble, and he was always reassuring, sometimes fatherly. But to this girl, trembling and quietly sobbing, her body clenched in pain (the chemicals, and probably a lot of intense sex, had inflamed her cervix), he said: "It's OK, honey." He had said it the way he'd say it to someone he cared about, someone in his real, away-from-work life. It surprised him that it had come out, especially with the term of endearment attached to it, a rare and risky thing in these litigious and politically correct times.

After he removed the sponge -- that evil object she had tried, for hours, to find inside her uncharted body, contorting herself into different positions like it said to do on the sponge website she'd visited in desperation on her work computer -- she thanked him sincerely. He had the feeling he'd just performed an exorcism. But then, her heightened emotional state had thrown his rationality out of hitch.

He talked to her about birth control, told her to consider the pill but to be aware that it alters your hormonal balance. He told her to take care, then added a stern, professional "Be good" that he later worried had sounded judgmental.


After Dr. Seagull closed the door behind him, she rose to get dressed. She continue to hold the sheet around her even though no one was there to see her. She knew it was too much, that it would seem melodramatic to an onlooker, but for just a few seconds she leaned against the wall of the room and cried with relief and gratitude. Still shaking, she hurried into her lacy panties and the too-expensive, low-rise jeans she had bought to make herself sexy.

He thought about her for days.

Friday, June 21, 2013

The states I crossed

I think about the states I crossed
As I'm lying in your arms.
Five years have passed
Since I spanned their widths
On the wheels of a car
Rolling reluctantly away.
First there was California--
A phone call I didn't want to take.
Next came Arizona,
A freak snowstorm at 4 a.m.
And "Feliz Navidad" on the Spanish-language radio
Again and again
Like a crazy incantation,
Desperate and in denial.
I didn't stop till Albuquerque,
A Motel 6, or 8, or 10,
A room that wasn't yours.
There might have been Texas.
Kansas or Oklahoma, I don't remember which.
A Waffle House lit up in the night
Like a shoebox made of glass
At the end of the world.
Arkansas, maybe. Tennessee probably.
And home to Virginia
Where I was as opposite to you
As the moon is to the sun.

Sunday, June 9, 2013


At the office

He was wearing a polyester suit from the thrift store. It had past lives. 

He had bought the suit because he thought it was funny. Or because he thought it was perverse. It wasn't a nice suit like you'd wear to a job you cared about. It was off-white, or had once been white but was now stain-colored. It had a faint rust-orange plaid printed on it in a sort of fake embroidery pattern -- dashes, like someone had known only part of the Morse code. (A zero was five dashes in Morse code; he had Googled that after buying the suit. Maybe the suit had Morse-code zeroes printed all over it, end to end.) The lapels were comically wide and the pants flared out at the bottoms. It was practically a Halloween costume. Which would have been fine except that he wore it to work one day after he realized that he no longer cared.

The office wasn't the kind of place where you could get away with eccentric clothing. Not like some creative place, one of those dot-com joints of yore where twenty-somethings in jeans would bat around a beach ball all day. And besides, this wasn't eccentricity. Morrison wasn't the kind of guy who wore Garfield ties, had a desk covered with bobble-head dolls, cracked jokes at meetings, dressed like a pirate and passed out chocolate doubloons on National Talk-Like-A-Pirate Day.
He wasn't that guy. That would have been one thing.
He wasn't the kind of guy you noticed or remembered for anything.
That had been the problem.
Well, that plus habitually turning in sub-par work about a week too late.

When he showed up at the office wearing the suit -- he worked at the international headquarters, in the office park just off the Interstate, a sprawling labyrinth of gray or beige cubicle walls, meeting rooms labeled by letter and booked through Microsoft Outlook, all of it awash in greenish-lilac light, you know, the same place you work, the same place everyone works -- no one knew how to react. Was he going postal? 

Kind of, yeah.

* * *

"Morrison. How ya doin'."

He'd noticed that before, how people here said "how are you" but never as a question.

Fred parked his can on the corner of Morrison's desk, one leg straight to support him and the other leg swinging jauntily. Fred was one of the crossovers, not as uptight as the others on the company's expansive executive team. (There was a vice president here for everything. Vice President of Printer Jams. Vice President of Bobble Heads.) Fred was VP of Human Resources, which always sounded frighteningly Orwellian to Morrison, like how you'd label food for some future alien overlords. As far as Morrison knew, Fred's job consisted mostly of making you watch videos about embracing cultural diversity and giving you un-failable tests about which Myers-Briggs temperament type you were.

Fred was the one they sent when it was time for you to go.

"Morrison." Fred was one of those people who said your name a lot. He had probably read to do that in one of his HR e-newsletters, to make people subconsciously feel endeared to him. "Let's go to my office and have a little chat." 

They walked down the gray or beige hall with its teal or maroon carpet and Morrison thought about how little this surprised him. It probably wasn't even the suit that was getting him sent to HR, a.k.a. the principal's office. The office was bad, but it wasn't that bad; it wasn't the fucking fashion police. Maybe he'd sensed that this was going to happen and he'd worn the polyester suit the way a debutante wears a fancy gown to a cotillion -- a "coming-out" ball, he'd heard it called.

Things in Fred's office: photos of his wife and daughters in little gilded baroque stand-up frames, an electronic hamster in a grass skirt that did a hula dance when you flicked a switch to "On," a mini Astroturf office-golf set still in the box. Morrison wondered if Fred had an expense-report category just labeled "morale-boosting whimsy."

Fred liked for you to think of him as your pal. He didn't wear a jacket like the other execs, and his sleeves were always rolled up; he was the kind of guy (for some reason Morrison thought he might be from the Rust Belt, some hardworking place) who chided you if you were not using enough "elbow grease." 

Fred sat on the corner of his own desk now, still with the one leg straight and the other leg swinging jauntily. Morrison tried to think of what shape his legs looked like, maybe a very angular lower-case "h," or the hands of a broken clock. Fred had a look on his face now like someone who has been told a very long joke and is waiting for the punchline.

Where was the punchline?

When Morrison said nothing, Fred spoke.
"A lot of folks here are concerned about you." Fred was the kind of person who said "folks" a lot. "Everything OK, buddy?" 
"Yeah, fine. Why?"
Fred's tongue was still lodged in the side of his mouth as if he were trying to pry a sesame seed out of a crevice in his back teeth, his head cocked, looking now like someone had told him the punchline but he didn't get it. 

So Fred went ahead with the termination. All of the appropriate paperwork was signed by the end of the day.

A different HR person escorted him out; Fred always sent an underling to do that. It wasn't that Fred wouldn't do his own dirty work. It was just that he was soft-hearted and hated good-byes, even when he barely knew the person. Or so he told himself.

The HR underling was a little Jewish woman from Boston with permed, dyed-blond hair and wide, perennially scandalized blue eyes (you always thought of her hearing some half-accurate scrap of office gossip and saying, "No! Really?!"). Morrison handed her his electronic key-card to the building before walking to his car. She said to him, "May Gawd be with you." She stood there like a little Grim Reaper.

As he drove away, Morrison thought that maybe Gawd had a plan for him after all. That would be nice.

* * *

What was this thing that grew inside him and uncoiled, unfurled like a fog, like when you drive to work on a foggy morning and all the boring office buildings and industrial parks are now suffused in an earth-bound cloud, and it all suddenly looks like a fairy-tale place, like noplace real? Life had started to look like that.

* * *

Sometimes Fred couldn't sleep after he fired someone, especially if he'd seen pictures of the person's spouse and kids, or sometimes even just of their dog. But this time he felt OK. Morrison seemed to have no one but himself. Maybe he was some kind of psycho. And besides, he'd worn that crazy suit. Wasn't that like wearing a big sandwich board that said "Fire me"? 

Yes, it was like that, Fred thought as he drifted to sleep next to his wife that night, the cat warm at the foot of their bed. It was like euthanasia.

On the road

He sat on the motel bed and opened the nightstand drawer to find the Gideon Bible he knew would be inside.

Morrison flipped to a random bit of divine scripture as if checking the newspaper for his horoscope.

"And the house of Israel called the name thereof Manna; and it was like coriander seed, white; and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey."

What the fuck?

Morrison was hungry. He thought he remembered seeing a Subway at the gas station off the Interstate exit. He thought he could walk there from the motel.

The highway divider was overgrown with weeds. The sky was appropriately ominous, reinforcing his solipsism, his feeling that nature was like one of those theater-tech kids in high school waiting in the wings for the director's cue to rattle sheets of aluminum to create thunder, waiting for the cue to create a mood. 

Morrison imagined flipping through books randomly -- the Bible, the dictionary, an encyclopedia, the phone book. A pointillist approach to accumulating the knowledge of the world.

Dot dot dash. Dash-dash-dash-dash-dash.

* * *

There was a world out there that was real. A world where you were closer to the earth, where you acted on passionate impulse. A world the opposite of paperwork and Garfield ties, of human resources and expense-reported whimsy. Maybe he should go there.

But he had already tried that.

In his mid-twenties, Morrison had moved out of his generic one-bedroom apartment and into the guest room of the most interesting and un-bourgeois character he knew. The un-bourgeois guy had neatly labeled filing cabinets filled with S&M toys in them, and a revolving harem of "playmates," some local and a few who visited from places like Germany or Los Angeles. Then the un-bourgeois guy got a girlfriend, and she moved in, and the two of them started asking Morrison to join them in a threesome, and it just got too weird so Morrison moved into another apartment. He never did join them in a threesome, although he fantasized about it sometimes when he got off. (Why didn't he join them? Because he was "all bark and no bite"?)

Around that time he had also made a point of working (part-time) at a used bookstore, which he had somehow thought would be the opposite of having a job in an office for a big corporation.
He worked at a musty, forlorn little bookstore just long enough to become an expert on mysteries written from the point-of-view of cats. He worked there just long enough to miss health insurance and lazy afternoons spent secretly surfing the web. 

One other time he went to a group interview for a job that had sounded, from a friend's casual description, like social work. The city had a crew of (un-licensed, un-degreed, low-paid) "advocates" who checked up on the local homeless people, chatted with them, made sure they were doing OK, called 911 if anyone appeared passed-out drunk or dead. Morrison liked the image of himself standing on some downtown street corner, steam rising up through vents like they do in nighttime scenes on gritty cop shows, ambient sounds of sirens in the middle distance, talking to a homeless man who was so crazy that he made perfect sense. Maybe he would write a book about it, maybe it would make him rich and famous. He mentally reviewed the good photos people had taken of him, wondering which one to pick for the "About the Author" shot on the inside back flap.

During the group interview at City Hall, which felt more like some mandatory driving class you'd go to after getting too many speeding tickets, the man in charge showed the applicants a map of the city. It was studded with red pushpins. The pins represented all the homeless people clustered around downtown. The man said the crew's goal was to drive the homeless people
away from where they might scare off the tourists -- Morrison was never clear about exactly how -- into other areas of the city. Later, a friend of Morrison's who did a lot of drugs said the "advocates" were more like professional snitches -- they gave the cops reasons to cart the homeless people away. Morrison didn't answer the voicemail from the recruiter asking him back for a follow-up interview.  

Oh well. None of that mattered anymore. He was away from the Garfield ties now. He just had to find where things were real.

* * *

Morrison eased back on the polyester motel bedspread in his polyester suit. He was still wearing it; he had taken off the jacket for the drive but put it back on in the room. It seemed emblematic of something.

Was he on a vacation, or was he running away? He thought about a judge making a decision about bail, trying to decide whether a felon was a "flight risk."

He thought about how all that fakeness felt more real than the suits that the executives at his old job wore. Their suits were made out of real wool, and they wore the suits with real cotton shirts, real leather shoes. He decided that realness was not the same as authenticity. "Real people" couldn't afford some of the "real" things in life -- real cashmere, real diamonds. So they had to settle for fakes.

Morrison decided to order up some porn to congratulate himself for his deep thoughts. 

He sat up on the motel bed, a confetti heap of excess lettuce piled up on a crumpled Subway wrapper. The TV was inside an oaken-looking boxy piece of furniture. Sliding doors made it so you could pretend the TV wasn't there. The room looked a little classier when you pretended the TV wasn't there.

He picked up the remote control. He found a menu of porn selections. He thought he would try them all.

Some of the porn was working for him and some of it wasn't. He wished he could take his favorite bits and pieces from each one and make a sort of porn patchwork quilt -- this chick's ass, but in that position. He worried that he was a dog for thinking of such things, then decided that in masturbationland everything is allowed as long as no one's getting hurt. Finally he fell back on the storehouse of images in his mind. Most of them were scenes from other porn, the more tailored-to-his-tastes porn he was able to find with the Internet right in front of him, or from movies. There were a handful of memories in there, too.

"Uhh!" screamed the girl with the fake tits who was really getting reamed in the ass. Her fake climax happened at the same time as Morrison's real one, but that was just a funny coincidence.

"Tomorrow I keep driving toward the border. Or I chicken out and go to Kinko's and polish my résumé
. Or I go home to Mom and Dad."

Was he a flight risk?

Maybe he would flip a coin.