I do presume.

Originally posted on Mighty Optical Illusions

“And where did you meet Gerald Reeves?”

We sat in a booth, on strawberry clouds with form after form and my driver’s license littering the table, speckled with dry tea. Placemats for coloring. Coloring for postgrads.

I adjusted the lining of my ruched black skirt. “You look quite nice.” “Thanks, James.” Previously I made another “last” visit to my place of study, to sign yet another form. Hopped on the bus with Jim’s last dime, waited in their marble suite with a raspberry soda in hand, and said goodbye to another prospect as a legal assistant in the antiquated convenience they call Downtown. My favorite work shirt hasn’t been ironed since.

“We met on the bus.”

Keeth chuckles in Irish mirth, motions to the Oreo Crumble and asks me how I like it. Applying for serving and barista positions certainly carries its perks. Peppermint mochas, green tea lattes, milkshakes and slices of mousse cake. On the house, as I scrambled for cash to stay in the laundry room of a friend’s.

Gerald convinced me serving was an art, that rewards follow refinement. Humanities degrees aren’t useless. They supply fodder for conversation. And this clientele, they’ll pay for fodder. Most are cops who come for the free coffee anyway.

He was only thirty-eight and claimed to work six days a week, seven if lucky. $500 a night since age seventeen at the same place. A different picture on the wall for twenty-four months straight. Two dozens’ worth of the “greatest employee we ever had.”

***

“He’s full of shit.”

I folded my hands over my apron, still boxy with tucked away tips. This was reprieve from the usual talk with disgruntled aunts at call centers. But a date would soon follow. “To be fair, you meet ’em on the bus.” “Thanks, James.” My disappointments with men aren’t worth speaking of as of today. Probably a good thing.

“You can really make good money, if you work the long hours and are fine with kissing ass. I mean, Gerald is going to retire. He put a good deal into an IRA Roth and some other stuff. Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”

“Must be nice to live at home. What kind of parents charge rent nowadays?”

“Mine.”

“Well, that’s you.”

Presumptions flutter and stand by our doors. The easy-to-access two-by-four they say to beat intruders with if you don’t have a gun. People you don’t know.

***

It’s very much like saying only dirty kids get lice, and I’m only reminded of a bubbly cop I really enjoyed pouring sweet tea for, until he offhandedly said that people get arrested for a reason, that trials were a waste of time. Yes, if they’re prolonged. “Innocent until proven guilty?” I quipped. “The arrest indicates guilt. Nine times out of ten.” “So what about that ten percent?” “Well, they sure did something.”

Sometime in 2010, or 2011, Justin Bieber told Rolling Stone that rape was a sad thing. Something along the lines of not liking abortion, that yeah, it’s really sad when a woman has a baby by rape, but “everything happens for a reason.” Well, yes. But what are you implying about the rationale? Is every reason justified?

Three weeks ago it was asked if I had an eating disorder. Anyone who lives with me would laugh at the question. I think Ren would be pissed. And today it was asked just how much I allocate for groceries. “How do you afford to get everything from Whole Foods?”

For the past five days, I’ve brought quinoa in a Tupperware, a bag of avocados, and mangos to spare. Put these together, glaze it with salsa, and you’ve created a filling salad.

All from an inner-city grocery store for less than fifteen bucks. And there’s enough to last for the week ahead.

Not that Whole Foods is bad. I love salmon jerky and matcha green tea powder. And if I can’t get matcha online, I’ll go to Whole Foods.

***

Perhaps I am oversensitive. But after a while, comments like this are no more grating than belittling someone for moving to Austin, “where affluent students panhandle.” Bring up the beauty of Portland, OR to hear similar scoldings from neighbors and friends. “A better Austin. Richer people.”

Today we sat through a sales pitch. Another local wholesale store hosting a membership drive, wedding cake, cookies, and photo packages lined on a table, set to tempt. They praised this part of town for its spending potential, family needs, consumers aplenty. And I turned to a coworker and whispered,

“Most people can’t afford to live here!”

“And really, he hasn’t done his research. Look at the study that made the paper. Where I grew up, you’ll find the greatest disposable income. It also costs the least to live there.”

I smile.

“Sorry. Just proud of my South Side is all.”

***

Turns out I’m already a member. Welcome to Costco. Not certain if I love you.

My plastic spoon sifts through quinoa in ways Rocky Road could never allow. But mousse-filled cake is always nice, chocolate chip and oatmeal comforts waiting in a brown paper bag should I seek them during break.

Another coworker apologizes for not inviting me to lunch.

“It’s okay.” I point to my empty tupperware. “Maybe next Friday.”

“I admire your discipline.”

Less than two years from my interview with Keeth, I’m finally working Downtown. Restaurants scream with specials and an authenticity I don’t entirely doubt. But even the doors of McDonald’s and Whataburger stand ajar and aloof, as lines stretch on and I only wonder how everyone dines inside and returns in due time.

Maybe I’m not so disciplined.

Perception reflects off each of our eyes. Myopia, astigmatism, and more. Not everyone needs glasses, but no one peers through a magnifying glass impervious to the drawbacks of subjectivity.

Watching

the beauty of sloth
is that I am not.
dash before beamers
sidle on hoods.
Sunday breathes
and beagles may cry.
panting at the side,
of Rage Against the Machine.
I study the grain,
paw at dissent.
These girls,
one skittish
and the other wet with thirst,
argue whether 1990
qualifies their kind.
button down groupies
of Generation X.

let me tell you,
they’re sweating, and wrong.
So just because Leila
came home with shades of Green Day
and because you heard her ask,
“…what does ‘Longview’ mean?”
doesn’t make you any more
of a casual, lemoned expert
than when you grabbed at Barbies.
conjugation God forbid.
this.
this has always been
Mom’s sweet tempest.

by the way, they still mold Kens
with simplicity bestowed
on the commercial infertile.
and me?
I’ve committed to all that is duty.
everyone has left.

milk, too thick
and fish quite dry –
so fester a few blocks down to the right,
if you could, at all.

read the sign
or save for fines.
let me be,
as these whiskers fall.

*Cat No. 19 of the 500 Cats Project

Serendipity, Altruism, and Sociopathy – The Beauty in “This is a Book”


Serendipity is often defined as a happening of chance, purveyor of help, good fortune, smiles. Serendipitous phenomena may beckon joy in times of despair, alleviate need in the midst of hardship, and quite possibly, restore faith in humanity. Quinn Farstride, town eccentric, arrives when most needed. No one knows how he pays his bills, keeps up with school, nor buys a home. Not a geographic coordinate can ever be determined for where he presently roams. Apparently, Quinn is a miracle worker. But is he altruistic?

In A Narcissist Writes Letters, to Himself, E.I. Wong has posted a draft of a mesmerizing novella. Transferred onto MS Word, single-spaced, the text comes out to 70 pages, feasibly read in two to three hours. But it is to be read again, firstly for its depth in themes to involve human relationships and the psychological, and secondly for the intricacy Wong’s writing imbues in character development and ambiguity. Is Q.F. a narcissist? Schizoid, a sociopath? A disorganized schizophrenic, as he initially proclaims? Soundness of mind aside, I wondered, “Did he really donate his kidney, blood, and marrow out of sheer kindness, or were they tickets to immortality? If they are simply tickets, should I be disappointed? Should I be mad?”

Dr. James Thatcher, professor of anthropology, writes a letter to his daughter, Melanie. Dr. Thatcher is a man who hates to lie, and on his deathbed, writes a letter to Melanie relaying a secret kept for eight years. As his son Todd faces renal failure, a gaunt ghost from Melanie’s childhood makes a university visit. Awkward, yet forceful, Quinn Farstride insists that he donates his kidney, already wielding test results that determine a plausible compatibility. Otherwise, little brother Arthur would donate, but doing so would jeopardize his journey in competitive football.

Quinn tells Dr. Thatcher he is losing his mind, and by donating, aims to preserve a functional aspect of his personhood before descending into madness. The mannerisms, speech, and uncanny knowledge of family affairs are all too unnerving. Predictably, Quinn fades, undetectable and absent to thank. After the donation, Dr. Thatcher ventures to find Quinn, speaking with his wife, consulting with mental health specialists, and finally, speaking with a Dr. Paysinger, the administrator at the hospital where Todd received treatment. Her disclosures captivate and intrigue, providing a detailed sketch of the vanishing oddball.

Emily, Dr. Paysinger’s daughter, has always been strange. In retrospect, Quinn’s mentorship only cultivated her peculiarities. Emily is sickly, needing blood transfusions to the extent that reserves have been drained at the hospital. Of course, Quinn has just the right type O negative blood to be a donor. Like the case of the Thatchers, Quinn coerces Dr. Paysinger into allowing him to repeatedly give blood to her daughter. Despite his frailty, donations continue, until the time of her transplant. The prospect of Quinn not needing to visit proves so distressing that ultimately, he vanishes from Emily’s life. At this point, erasure is a trend, a trademark end of Quinn’s interpersonal relationships.

But why does Quinn act, think, and commit to the feats that he does? Because he’s weird. This is a gross oversimplification. The goal of the narrator, and perhaps of readers, is to determine motives. What drove Quinn to give his blood, his time, his knowledge to an ever precocious young girl, and donate his kidney to the brother of a childhood friend with whom interactions were scarce? Quinn professes his love for Melanie. We know he hasn’t gotten over her, as his wife is a redheaded replica. Why does Dr. Thatcher take all this time to rediscover a strange bird who has already shown he can’t be found? Hell, Quinn doesn’t even want a “Thank you.” His ultimate request reads:

“I would like my last sane act to be a noble one. I would like myself, as I can perceive now, to be immortalized in this deed, so that in the future, when I am lost, I have a definite idea of the man I truly am; the man who I will try to uphold against my own illness.”

While Quinn’s desire is understandable, is it altruistic? He wants to preserve a sense of self. Of course that’s self-serving. But it doesn’t detract from the magic of his deeds, his resilience to the wear and tear of medical giving, the ability to self-sustain in the face of meager supply. Quinn is pretty weird. And impressive. He teaches martial arts to a young girl as a hands-on lesson in physics. A creative guy, though exasperating.

An exchange with Emily Paysinger gives Thatcher greater closure. The severance her mother describes was not permanent, for Emily visits Quinn after the kidney donation. Again, he disappears, despite the operation leaving him debilitated. Several lines shook me. Emily remarks,

“It wasn’t until I went to visit him in recovery that I realized that he had been…grooming me for some sort of purpose.”

Eventually, Emily receives a seven-paged letter from Quinn. More text that eerily resonates:

“He called me his ‘little catalyst for change.’ He wrote that I was to finish the ‘projects’ that he no longer could, and wrote me a list of instructions on how to complete each ‘equation.’ Quinn called the list a sort of training manual for what I was supposed to do and become.”

Bluntly, I admit that I thought to myself, “What a frickin’ narcissist!” Did Quinn write these equations, the framework for all these projects? What if he didn’t? And what kind of change was Quinn hoping to actualize?

Another of Quinn’s rarely explicit desires, and thoughts:

“‘It is my wish that you become a paragon of goodness. I see within you that potential to become something greater than the caliber of individuals that fill our world. You, my little angel, can be a creator and perpetuator of goodness and light…This is not a charge, or a demand I set upon you, but an acknowledgement from one friend to another, of the perfection I know you are capable of, and a design, a path, a way to that unified state.'”

Quinn seems to express a disappointment in the people around him. So does Melanie. In the beginning of Dr. Thatcher’s letter, he recalls her commenting, “‘Love isn’t real.'” But the letter aims to dispel this notion.

A dysfunction in personality seems to be a recurring topic of interest concerning Quinn’s character. I found him too deliberate and composed to legitimately suffer from the complexities of disorganized schizophrenia. He is written as a man who thinks, deliberates, inculcates. He reveals himself to be former thief, a rebel scornful of contemporary conventions, traveling yuppies, the ignorant layperson, organized religion. He is the quiet child in the corner of one of your college classes, never speaking his mind, though his facial expressions and mannerisms reveal all you need to know that something’s amiss. Something is brewing that chills, potentially harms without conscience. You’ve met “The Sociopath Next Door.”

And while it is dictated that sociopaths cannot feel, and indeed lack a moral framework, I refuse to think his interactions with Emily were purely self-serving. He taught her things of utility, and the end results of his doings, and her completion of the “projects” were good. Beneficial. Improved the lives of many. This seems too descriptive of utilitarianism. While the popular philosophy embraces maximization of good for all involved, altruism stipulates that good is spread to all except the actor, or “creator and perpetuator of goodness.”

Does Quinn benefit from any of his doings? It’s a topic for solid debate. Melanie, the love of his life, gives him the confidence to adopt a new perspective and disown his former ways. Emily, his adoring student, absorbs all the wisdom he wishes to teach, continuing his grand projects. But even if the projects perpetuate good, it seems that Quinn prefers not to be thanked, or even acknowledged. While the benefits he gleans are up for questioning, we know that he is gone. Regardless, miracles are made, within the story and craftsmanship alike.