Monday, July 5, 2010

I called my wife. I tried to explain.

Theta waves, I said. It’s all about theta waves. They’re more longitudinal than alpha or beta waves.

What? my wife said. What are you talking about?

Brain waves, I said. I knew I sounded like an idiot without her taking that tone. I tried to redeem myself.

The device, like, encodes these low tones into the speaker, I said. You don’t hear anything, but your nervous system picks it up. It’s like how they say listening to Mozart can raise your IQ, well, this works the same way only you don’t know you’re listening to Mozart, you just think you’re talking on the phone, and it’s way more powerful than listening to Mozart. It’s like meditating for ten years or becoming a carpenter. It gives you theta waves.

I turned my cell phone over and looked at the device on the back of it. About the size and thickness of my thumbnail, it didn’t look like much. I watched the green light fade in and out. It looked like it was breathing.

What? I said. What? What? I pressed the phone back to my ear. I thought my wife had said something about the baby, but she hadn’t. She was telling me some story about one of her employees. My wife works for a pharmaceutical company. She is a regional supervisor.

She left the keys in the van, my wife said, and the ignition on. What did she think was going to happen?

Apparently someone stole a van full of drug samples out of a convenience store parking lot in Iowa City. My wife had to fire her employee. I could tell she felt bad. She was also worried she would be held responsible. Times were lean in the pharmaceutical business. They were talking about cuts.

How are you feeling? I asked. I meant the baby.

I pictured her sitting on the made-up hotel bed in her suit skirt with her round belly. I imagined the scratchy feel of the synthetic comforter on her heels and calves.

Fine, she said.

I didn’t think all this stress would be good for the baby, but I wasn’t going to bring that up again. Last time I brought it up, this is what she said:

What do you want me to do? Quit my job and stay home, watch us run out of money? I’ll be way more relaxed if I do that.

Neither of us spoke. I looked over at the cat sitting on the couch. He was licking his paw, and I realized that my vision had widened out, and my mind was clear and empty.

Whoa, I said. It works.

What works? my wife asked.

Clarity, I said. It works.

I called my grandmother. I told her about the benefits of the Clarity device. It makes you calmer, more clearheaded, makes you feel more energized and enhances creativity, I said. I was reading from the brochure.

How is your creativity? my grandmother asked.

Not so good, Grandma. I haven’t been doing much painting lately.

That’s too bad.

My grandma is old. She has arterial sclerosis, congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, macular degeneration, glaucoma, and emphysema. She also has the other stuff that all old people have like arthritis and wrinkles and short-term memory loss. She is smart as a whip, though. She likes to tease her doctors. She tells me the funny things she says to them. She’ll drop an F-bomb right on their patent leather toes just to watch their eyes go wide.

How’s Janice? my grandma asked. Getting big?

Her belly’s getting big, I said, but the rest of her is still skinny.

What about her fun bags?

They’re bigger, too, I said.

That’s nice, my grandma said. I used to love my boobies when I was pregnant.

My grandma had three children—my aunt, my mom, and my uncle in that order. My aunt lives in Southern California and takes care of my grandmother. My uncle lives in the desert. They like to ask me about the weather in Chicago. People in California are very curious about the weather in other parts of the country. My mother is not living anymore and neither is my father. They died ten years ago in an automobile accident from which I walked away.

Maybe you could get one, I said.

One what?

A Clarity device, I said. You can put it right on the back of your home phone.

Maybe I will, my grandma said. Do they make one for your hip?

I don’t think so, I said.

My hip hurts more than my brain. Hurts all the way up my back, she said. I need to get a cortisone shot.

You’re my hero, Granny, I said.

I always thought I’d be a good role model someday, my grandma said.

I told her I loved her and hung up the phone. I couldn’t believe how good I felt. I felt huge in my body, totally expansive. My fingertips and toes buzzed, and everything looked radiant, luminous. I could see all the colors of the rainbow in the halo around the chandelier. The brown on the walls was so deep I could dive right into it. I looked at the little spider plant sitting atop the TV. The green was so green, like I’d never seen green before. It was like I could see it living. I called a few more people and got caught up. I told them about the device. I used the word “revolution,” which the promotional rep had used when he handed me the device. My cousin said he’d been using it for weeks. He said it had changed his life.

I know, I said. I can totally tell this is going to change my life.

He asked me if I’d heard about “hovering.”

What? I said. What is that? I’m new to this thing. I’m a total rookie.

Hovering was something that Clarity users did. You would just stay on the line and not talk at all. My cousin said he and his girlfriend did it all the time. They’d just lie down on the bed and the one would call the other and they’d stay there for hours and just soak it up without saying a word.

It sounds freaking awesome, I said.

We tried it for a while and when I went to bed that night I felt incredible. I had a dream that I was riding this huge whale through the waves. It had a saddle on its back and a bit in its mouth like a horse, and I had this awesome orange and green suit with finned gloves like Aquaman. The whale would jump high out of the water and dive deep into the abyss. At first I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to breathe, but I could. I could breathe underwater. I took deep breaths and we went down into the dark.

When my alarm rang in the morning I popped right out of bed and felt like a million bucks. It was cold and dark and early, but I was so awake and all at once, too. I was like, zing, zip, yippee freaking kai-ay. I drank a cup of coffee and tried to decide who to call. I didn’t want to wake up my wife in Iowa City. She had to drive back to Chicago for her yearly review that afternoon and would be upset. I wondered what getting in a fight on the phone while using Clarity would do. I wondered if I’d still feel better at the end. I wondered if I’d be better or worse at arguing. I remembered what my cousin told me about the Clarity conference calls. I looked on my computer and saw there was a list of different numbers for people in every field. There were lawyer conference calls, and professional athlete conference calls, and calls for painters like me. There was even a call for bicycle messengers, which reminded me that I had to get to work. I pulled my balaclava over my head and put on a pair of long johns and jeans. I put on my cycling helmet and my gloves and tromped down to the storage space in the basement. I pulled out my single-speed, steel-frame bike with the drop-down handlebars and the custom lime green paint job. I’d put the setup together, and I wanted to give the bike a hug. It felt like my freaking best friend.

My breath rose up from me in big smoky puffs as I pedaled down to the Loop. It was a cold day, and I could feel the air pushing the tears out of my eyes and along the sides of my face. I wondered if they might freeze that way and if I might have huge ice deposits on my temples like fins or something. I got a call on my walkie-talkie right as I crossed Wacker and entered the Loop. I had a package at the Chase building. I pedaled ahead. I had my hands-free device in my ear, and I tried to listen to see if I could hear anything on my conference call. Every now and then someone would come on and say his or her name, which was the protocol for joining the conference call, and then silence. I wondered how many people might be on the call. Were there a hundred? A thousand? Were there bicycle messengers in San Francisco and rickshaw drivers in Shanghai listening in? It started to snow. The snow blew round and round on its way to the ground. Big feathery flakes turning like tornados. No more were the people on the sidewalks and crosswalks my adversaries. No more was I competing for space with the cabbies and delivery trucks. We were all just moments in a flow, a never ceasing exchange. I quit my job at lunch and went to the studio. I painted like a demon until dinnertime and pedaled home with furious speed.

My wife was there. She was stuffing mushrooms. There was a bottle of sparkling pomegranate juice in the ice bucket. The fire was on. The dog jumped on me and wagged his tail. My wife had been offered a promotion. They were consolidating regions, and she’d been given part of someone else’s territory. I told her that was great. I told her that I’d quit my job at noon. She mashed some seasoned breadcrumbs into a mushroom with her thumb. I asked her if she was upset.

No, just maybe you could have waited until you heard how my review went, she said. You knew I was afraid I’d be fired.

I nodded. I saw her point. I guess I hadn’t even thought about it. All I’d known was that it suddenly became clear to me that it was a waste of my time to be shuttling corporate documents from one skyscraper to another. It was just a way for me to hide out from the world—hide out from my painting and not feel so dependent on her. She’d always said she didn’t care if I had a job so long as I was painting. Did she not mean it? Or was something else going on here? I kissed her on the cheek. Her skin was warm against my frigid nose. I told her I was proud of her and asked to help with dinner. We uncorked the pomegranate bubbly like it was expensive champagne. We drank it, and after dinner we made love. She looked beautiful above me, her belly taught and swollen with new life.

In the dark I told her that I could feel something coming, that something was changing in me and that it was going to manifest in my painting, I thought, or maybe some other way. I’d never felt anything like it before, but I knew it was a true feeling. I pulled the sheets up to my chin and smiled up at the ceiling in the dark. When I was finished talking, my wife didn’t say anything, and this made me feel a little sad. I didn’t know what I wanted her to say; or maybe I did. I wanted her to support me. I wanted her to tell me to go for it—to go, go, go—and that she believed in me and trusted me and approved of this new sense of power and confidence that was growing in me, this thing that was changing in my heart.

The next morning I went straight to the studio and painted all day. I attacked a large canvas I’d purchased months ago and opened new tubes of expensive paint. I vowed to myself that I would never be miserly again, that I would lean into life and take big risks and live in a loud and courageous way. I put down my sketching pencil and picked up a brush. I left a long red line down the middle of the canvas and followed my impulses. I made a mess. I listened to my conference call, the slight hiss of static, and thought about the other artists out there swinging away, getting paint under their nails and clay in their hair. How many people were on this call, I wondered? Were there a million? Were there a million artists with Clarity devices and green lights breathing on the backs of their phones? The idea of such a fellowship floored me. I wondered what we were teaching each other, what we were learning from this great communal silence.

On my way home I stopped by the Clarity store and picked up a device for my wife. I cooked us dinner: simple pasta with vegetables, healthy and light. I picked out a nice white wine. When my wife came home from work, I greeted her at the door. I handed her the device and she said, What’s this? Her smile was brilliant. Her teeth were white and she was happy to see me happy, and then she figured it out.

It’s Clarity, I said unnecessarily. I got one for you.

Thanks, honey, she said. She turned away. She arranged her coat on a hanger and arranged the hanger in the closet, and I could not see her face. She walked back to the bedroom, and I still held the small bag in my hand, and my fingers were hot and sweaty and sticking to the plastic.

It smells good in here, she said when she returned to the kitchen. She pushed up the sleeves of her sweater and put her hands on her hips. She looked so beautiful standing there. It’s clean in here, too, she said.

Do you want me to set it up for you? I asked without turning away from the stove.

I can do it myself, she said. Just not right now. I just want to relax for a minute. She took a seat on the bench and drew one knee up to her chest. I handed her a half glass of Pinot Gris.

After dinner we sat on the couch with the dog and the cats. We watched TV and my wife fell asleep. By the evening of the next day she still had not set up the device. I told her how easy it was. One minute to attach the device and another three or four to register the product online. That’s all it took, and from there you could just feel the changes start. She told me again she would do it later, and I did not try to hide my annoyance. I could not understand how someone so close to me, so similar in preferences and worldview and all the other things that I took for granted as the basis of our marriage—why wouldn’t she do something so simple that would help her, and me by extension, out? I wondered if she was afraid. I wondered if she was afraid of confronting something in her mind that she did not understand. Was she afraid of the power? Was she afraid something might be unleashed that she could not contain? Was she worried about the baby? It seemed so mysterious to me. We watched the news that night, and there was a piece on Chicago Seven about Clarity. The anchor did his best to present it as a highly controversial new technology. They interviewed psychologists and doctors who warned that the long-term effects of using Clarity were still unknown. They interviewed religious leaders who compared the spiritual language of Clarity users to the language used by cultists and the hallucinogenic enthusiasts of earlier decades. I looked at my wife, who sat on the couch and took this in with a mute expression, and I got the feeling I sometimes got that she had withdrawn deep inside herself, far from the windows of her eyes so that I would not be able to see what was working there. I did not say anything during the news piece, which was not easy to do. When it was over I shut myself in the spare bedroom and dialed up a conference call. I felt much better just lying there on the carpet and listening to the silence. I watched the green light breathing on my phone, and after a few minutes I picked up a sketch pad and began to draw.

It was Christmastime, and my wife and I went to a party at her boss’s house in Lake Forest. Her boss lived in a giant red-brick colonial with tall white columns reaching up to the portico over the entrance. It was a cold, clear night, and there was snow on the lawn and snow covering the hydrangeas against the walls. The wife of my wife’s boss opened the door and greeted us with a smile. Her eyes were like deep pools of clean water, and I knew at once she was a Clarity user herself. I wondered if my wife could see this, too.

You look wonderful, the woman said to my wife. I looked down at my wife’s belly, and it appeared to me under her silver shirt as a disco ball flashing in the lights, and I wanted to paint her this way. I wanted to dash it off in streaks of silver glitter and black.

It won’t be long now, our hostess said.

Two months, my wife admitted.

My wife and I exchanged our baby smile with lowered eyes and went inside.

At the party I talked for a long time with a young female drug rep about painting. She asked a lot of questions and kept saying how much better it sounded than taking doctors to lunch and setting them up with box seats to Blackhawk games. She was pretty, and there was something very sensuous about the way she used her lips and tongue while she talked. I realized it had been a long time since I’d seen my wife, and when I looked for her I could not find her. A woman I don’t remember meeting said, Are you Danny? I nodded. Come with me, the woman said. The woman led me by the hand upstairs to a bathroom and gave me a hug. Her eyes were wet and shining. She knocked on the door.

Danny? my wife called from within.

I opened the door. My wife crouched in the far corner by the bathtub in her bra and underwear. Her underwear was soaked in blood and there was blood on her legs and a puddle of blood on the tile. The blood was dark, and the lights above the mirror shone brightly on the surface. I stepped inside and closed the door behind me. I watched the blood ripple around my shoe.

The ambulance arrived a few minutes later. I rode in the back with my wife. I held her hand and touched her face. The doctor told me we’d lost the baby, but my wife would be fine, and I thought about that word, fine. He was a kindly man. Older. He was a father maybe, a grandfather. He said he was sorry for us, and I could see that he was. He had very deep hazel eyes, a Clarity user if I’d ever seen one.

My mother-in-law came up from St. Louis. My wife stayed in bed all day with the shades drawn and barely moved. For days I sat in one corner drawing on my art pad and listening in on my conference call. I did sketches in charcoal of things I saw in the room in combination with things that came up in my imagination. My mother-in-law sat beside the bed, knitting. She had found a call for widows who liked to knit. I imagined the faint ticking of a billion knitting needles like insects in her phone.

After a week I went back to work. It seemed like the right thing to do to support my wife. I did not know if she would ever make it back to work, and really, I did not mind. I pedaled around downtown listening in on my conference call. It was January and bitterly cold, but it felt good to be outside. It felt good to make my body work and be with all the people. It was just before lunch when I heard a male voice say my name, and the voice sounded vaguely like my father’s. It was just another bicycle messenger named Danny signing on to the conference call, but the memory already had me. It was summertime, and I was again a very small boy running down a mountain trail after my father. The slope was covered with white wildflowers and clumps of buffalo grass, and the dirt on the trail was loose and irregular underfoot, and I knew that I was running too fast, but I wanted to fall. I wanted to fall down and skin my knees and my hands and have my father lift me up high above his head and tell me to be brave. I wanted him to kiss me on the cheek with his rough beard and hold me close to his chest and his beating heart.

I looked up and the light was red. A white service van was in the intersection, and the corner of its bumper slammed into my front tire and sent me catapulting over the handlebars. I saw the wide whites of the driver’s eyes set in his dark face. There was frost around the perimeter of the windshield. The sunlight flashed and danced.

I tucked my chin to make sure I would not land on my head and landed flat on my back on the asphalt and could not take in any air. It felt as if a giant fist were squeezing my torso. I kicked my legs out, and my skeleton rang like a bell. High above me the skyscrapers pointed up to the pale sky like fingers of glass and steel. The clouds were distant and static, like they had been spread high and thin with a knife. People surrounded me in a circle. A woman knelt over me. She had on a long brown coat and glasses, a yellow scarf and no hat. I wondered if her ears were cold. She asked if I could hear her, and I nodded, and the idea came to me that the people around me formed a human cathedral. I closed my eyes and waited for my breath to return.

When I came home that night my wife was still in bed, and my mother-in-law was in the kitchen cooking dinner for us. The kitchen was warm and bright and filled with the smell of garlic and tomato sauce. My dog jumped up on me, and the cats rubbed at my legs. I put food in their bowls and went back to see my wife. She did not stir in the bed when I entered, and I could not even see her breathing under the covers, and I knew this was no way to live.

I got into bed next to her and tucked her hair behind her ear. Her ear, the gentle curves of the cartilage and tiny hairs glistening in the light sneaking around the curtains, seemed so precious. I opened her phone and dialed the conference call for women who’d lost children during pregnancy. I held the phone to her ear and kept it pressed there even when she turned away and flicked weakly at it with her hand. I sat in the dark and held her by the shoulder with my other hand. I gritted my teeth and watched the green light breathing slowly on the back of her phone. I could not believe I was doing this, but life could be so terrible, and there seemed nothing more terrible than to go through it, than to suffer its torments and injustice, without knowing that there was something still and sane at the center that proved once and for all its rightness. I could not let my wife go through this without feeling that, without experiencing that. To do so would be so cruel it hardly seemed human.

Thursday, July 1, 2010