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The Problem of Human Consumption

ISSUE:  Summer 2004

Paul, in this case, is a widower. His wife died thirteen years ago. He kept their daughter away as much as he could. There were relatives around to play with her, to shower her with gifts and praise. His wife grew pale in the study. Her hair fell out. The disease ate her body in delicate bites. How do you explain such things to a four-year-old?

Paul has not moved or remarried. He has not taken a new job or dated a pretty secretary. To become unstuck has proved more than he can manage. He took his one grand risk of love. He met his desire and clung to her and she dissolved in his arms.

He lives with his daughter in this same house, which is a little too big for the two of them. (There were plans for a second child.) Jess has grown into an awkward beauty. She has a great head of hair, which she wears long down her back. Paul watches her on occasion, speaking to one of her suitors on the phone. She has aspects of her mother, an easy, unexpected laugh; that hair, which floats behind her like the train of a gown. But she is burdened with his bones—stolid, heavy. She dresses to conceal her figure, the broad, pallid curves. Her young body swims inside baggy jeans and sweaters.

The moment in question is a Saturday night. Paul is alone in his home. Jess is out on a date, with a boy, or perhaps a group of them all together, at a bowling alley or movie house, chattering about the people they fear they are, or wish to become.

Jess has given herself over to this second life, among her peers, and Paul makes every effort not to hold her back. It is vital that she find happiness where she can.

Paul occupies himself by acquiring expertise: airplanes, butterflies, the history of the labor movement. He reads articles in his study, by the dozens, and sends electronic messages with his new computer. He imagines them flying from his fingertips, lighting the dark circuits of the world with knowledge.

But on this particular evening an ancient restlessness has stirred within Paul, and he wanders from the soft lamps of his study into the kitchen and makes a sandwich. The fridge is divided by shelves, because Jess has decided, of late, to become a vegetarian. He admires this decision. It strikes him as the only sustainable solution to the problem of human consumption. (Six billion mouths to feed. The energy required to raise a calf versus a field of beans. He has studied the problem.) Paul has even considered telling her how much he admires her decision. But this would deprive Jess of the pleasure of her righteousness. And it would expose him as a hypocrite, because meat is one of his few pleasures. He gazes at the items on her shelf—the bumpy soups and mysterious chutneys, a jar of green liquid that appears to be growing spores—and reaches for the smoked ham.

The first sandwich only serves to make him hungrier, so he eats a second. The phone rings and he goes to pick it up, but there’s only a dial tone. These hang-ups are a new development. They make Paul feel embarrassed, as if Jess is ashamed of him.

He wanders the house, unable to attach himself to a task. He turns on the TV and allows the colors to wash over him for a few minutes. They make his eyes tear up. He doesn’t worry about his daughter. There is something ruthless in her sensibility. He pities the boy who mistakes her for an easy mark.

Paul arrives at Jess’s room. He’s not sure how he got here. A minute ago, he was watching the History Channel—that terrible siege at Stalingrad, grown men feeding on the soles of their children’s shoes—and now he’s standing in his socks before her room. The door is open a crack, because Jess knows her father isn’t a spy. He has always kept himself from such obvious curiosities.

Her room is much larger than most of her friends’, because, in fact, he’s given her the room that once served as the master bedroom. He sleeps downstairs, in the room that used to be his study. And his study is the room that she slept in as a child. All these changes were made hastily, after the funeral, and they never seemed odd or unnatural to him. Jess has always required more room than he has.

As it is, she’s expanded her possessions to fill the room. She has a set of drums in one corner, which she rarely plays anymore, thank God. There are two desks—one devoted to her schoolwork, the second to her recent fanatical interest in astrology. There are a few sweaters on the bed, which is half made, and a stack of books on her nightstand, all devoted to astrology.

The room is warm, unexpectedly so, and filled with the sweet, slightly burnt residue of sandalwood incense. Paul turns this way and that. He lopes into Jess’s bathroom and pees and wipes the rim and stares at the bulky makeup bag beside the sink, afraid to touch it. He walks back into her room and glances at the possessions on her dresser—an ivory chopstick, a tube of something called Spirit Gel, a tiny tin of breath mints—strange relics of her personhood scattered in the low light.

There is another object there, glimmering beneath a pile of scrunchies. Paul doesn’t want to disturb the pile. He doesn’t want to snoop. But he does want to know what that might be glimmering, so he turns on the light and peers into the pile. The object is his wife’s wedding band.

Paul’s reaction is one of terror. He hurries over to turn off the light and sits on the edge of the bed and his heart is galloping. He has always assumed his wife was buried with her ring. He has an image of her laid out, the slender gold band on her finger. This is ridiculous, though, because she insisted that her body be used for medical research, and they didn’t bury her at all. There had been a memorial service.

He tries to remember the last time he saw his wife but cannot. He remembers only the rails of the bed, the steel of them, and the humiliating smell of decay. At some point, she must have given Jess the ring. But why had she done this? And how had Jess managed to keep this from him? And why? Was this a secret between the two of them? And if so, what was the ring doing on her dresser, left out like a bit of costume jewelry?

These are the mysteries that consume him as he sits on his daughter’s bed with his hands in his lap. They matter as much as any of the others, the fact that people die for no good reason, that they choose to hate when love becomes unbearable, that a certain part of them, starved of happiness, gives up, shuts down, goes into hibernation.

Paul can feel the squeeze of panic in his chest. He has worked so hard to avoid the traps of mourning, the self-pity and rage. He has made sure his daughter feels loved. He has given her all the gifts of compassion she will bear. But this ring, it feels like a betrayal, a cruel stirring.

He wants to leave her room, shut the door, drift back to his study. Instead, he gets up and walks to the dresser and stares at the ring. He removes the scrunchies one by one with the chopstick. He picks the ring up and puts it down and picks it up again, and it’s heavier than he expected or denser or something, and he notices a hair, a single strand of his daughter’s hair, clinging to metal. The hair is looped through the band, actually, in such a way that when he holds both ends the ring is suspended. He lifts one end and then the other, and the ring slides back and forth, and this simple motion, in the somber light of the room, strikes him as miraculous: the ring defying the law of gravity.

It is at this precise moment that his daughter appears in the doorway. She often finds her father asleep at this hour, in the chair in his study. The habit has become a joke between them. He denies in mock indignation; she gently accedes. Whatever you say, Dad.

Jess is in the doorway for a second before her father realizes she’s there, and for a portion of that second she’s not even entirely sure what she’s seeing—a stranger in her room, a thief, should she be frightened?—but then she recognizes his socks and the bedraggled clumps of hair above his ears, which she has always wanted to trim.

She sees that he is hunched over something shiny and that this shiny thing is sliding back and forth between her father’s fingers. There is an instant, the tiniest of instants, in which she too believes the object is floating in the air, and this possibility of magic is a thread that joins them.

Then she sees that the object is the ring, her mother’s ring, and she is furious at herself for being so careless and a little frightened of what her father might do, and a little frightened, also, of what her father might not do, that he may be too cautious at this point to express what she would consider an appropriate rage. Because she did not, after all, receive this ring from her mother. She stole the ring from her father, from a shoebox tucked away on a high shelf in the closet in his study, where it was stashed, along with the results of a blood test and a yellowed marriage license and a ribbon which she imagines her mother wore on her wedding day, though she has never been able to find it in the photos.

Jess is considering all this when her father looks up.

Remember: the light is low. It is difficult to read precise expressions. These two are, more than anything, familiar shapes in the dark.

Paul feels dizzy with shame. He has been caught in his daughter’s room, playing with his wife’s ring, a ring which now belongs to Jess. The transfer of this object between the two women is, in his mind, an ancient secret he had no business discovering. He wishes he had slipped away a few minutes earlier, as he intended.

Jess doesn’t say anything. She is capable of excruciating silences. It hasn’t yet occurred to her to feel betrayed. She doesn’t quite know how she should react, though she does have a vague sense that her father should take the lead here; he is the adult and the rightful owner of the ring and the person whose actions have initiated the moment.

But her father is standing there, frozen. The ring is quivering. Jess waits for him to speak. She still hasn’t figured out exactly how the ring is able to float there between his fingers. She wants to switch on the light, solve the mystery, confess to her secret theft, get everything out into the open. And then again, she wants to back away quietly and run to where her friends are waiting in a car by the curb. Her father might never say anything. He might suppose he had dreamed the entire thing. She would not put that past him.

Paul looks at his daughter, looks her flush in the face, that soft pink swirl of youth, and suddenly he is hungry again, famished. He wants to prepare himself another sandwich, heavy on the ham, and settle into his sleeping chair. But his legs won’t move, and he remembers, rather too suddenly, that he used to feel this same way after making love to his wife, a queer, short-lived paralysis which overtook him as he lay in a pool of his own heat.

Jess sees her father begin to smile, and she takes this as a bad sign. He looks a bit touched, actually, and this worries her, and this worry causes her to take a step into the room. Not a whole step, just an experimental little half step, as if testing the temperature of a bath.

“Dad?” she says. “Are you all right?”

He nods, or tries to nod. She can’t tell.

“Is something the matter?” Jess steps closer. “What’s going on?”

Paul is shaking a little. He is looking at his daughter and smelling the sandalwood and remembering a trip they took years ago to the beach, to San Gregorio, south of Half Moon Bay, remembering the sandy hollow where they built a fire to roast hotdogs and marshmallows. He is thinking of his wife, who was not ill yet, not diagnosed, though she was tired more than usual, and despite this, the cooling breeze off the water and the rhythm of surf made them both amorous. Jess was there, too, in a little white bikini, which she quickly shed. She ran about naked, chasing the gulls all the way down to the shore, until Paul was forced to go after her. He picked her up and swung her so that her toes swept across the water and she shrieked. The sun beat down on both of them. Later, her mother combed out her hair until she grew drowsy enough for a nap. Paul ate the last of the hotdogs, and his wife lay beside him and set her hand on his chest, and they whispered to one another, Should we? Do you think? though they already were (beneath their blanket) engaged in the soft panic of love. It was a weekday afternoon. There was no one else around. Their daughter slept beside them. Her hair, still blond, fell across her small, brown shoulders.

Jess is still calling his name, and she has, by now, stepped close, close enough to smell the meat on his breath, the tang of mustard, and she, too, is thinking about that trip to the beach, though she isn’t quite certain where she was, only that it was some place outdoors that smelled of fire and burned meat and that she woke to find her father on top of her mother, moving against her with a wet desperation, as if to devour her, while her mother smiled delicately in profile. Then her father looked over and saw her watching and seemed to want to say something to her, to yell or apologize, she couldn’t tell which, and she shut her eyes and turned the other way, and soon after her mother got skinnier and skinnier and they locked her in the study. This is when all the aunts began to arrive and to give Jess gifts, one every morning. They told her she was beautiful again and again.

Jess would have no idea, at this point in her life, that she has associated this memory with her mother’s death, that in some hidden cavern of her heart, she regards her father as having killed her mother, or, more precisely, that she regards herself and her father as having collaborated in the murder of her mother.

She knows only that she has arrived home to find her father in her room, that he is shaking, his eyes clouded over with sorrow, and because she loves her father, she moves to embrace him, not a full hug, just a brushing of their two bodies in the dark. Her hair is shining like some wild flag, and he is staring down at the ring, breathing heavily. What is this embrace—a gesture of condolence, of forgiveness?

Paul is so hungry now he could eat a pig, a cow, an entire farm of useless beasts. All the fields of crops in all the countries of the world would not fill his belly. He can smell the smoke of the fire and the meat, and he is lying with his wife on the warm sand, and he is holding on to his only given daughter, and he is starving to death.

It is important to remember that this is only a single moment, this tentative caress, nothing they will speak of again, an interlude.

It is important to remember that their crimes are not really crimes. They are simple human failings, distortions of memory, the cruel math of fractured hopes. The only true crime here is one of omission. The woman they both loved has been omitted from their lives. She is a beautiful ghost, a floating ring.

In less than a second, a horn will sound from below. Jess will fall back, swing herself away from her father and toward the rest of her life, her friends waiting in a car by the curb, the night to come, the boy who has told her she is beautiful, who will, in a few hours, in the basement of another home, slip his hand inside her pants and whisper again that she is beautiful.

As for the ring, it will be replaced, first by Paul, on the dresser, under the scrunchies, then by Jess, in the box on the shelf in her father’s closet.

Paul will return to the kitchen and make himself a sandwich, but the meat will taste rotten, and this taste will haunt his tongue, even after he rinses with mouthwash, and he will drink warm milk instead and take a sleeping pill, and then a second, until he can feel the convincing blur of his dreams. In the days to follow, he will swear off meat, a gradual transition, so as not to attract the notice of his daughter.

But this, of course, is what lies ahead for them, as they race away from the hot center of themselves. Decent lives. Reasonable consumption.

For now, they are still together. Her arms are around him, one hand on his shoulder, the other touching the padding of his waist. He is staring at the ring. Hunger is surging inside him as he sways with her, once, through the dimness of the room. What are they doing here, exactly? Who can say about such things? They are weeping. They are dancing. They are prisoners of this moment and wonderfully, terribly alive.


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