There was the time when I had to leave my house during a party to buy orange juice— my wife, LauraBeth, had invited her brothers over for a birthday brunch—and I was gone for fifteen minutes, but nobody noticed. We had all been standing on the deck and talking about how hot it was; her birthday is in August, and in August one thing you do is talk about how it is currently hot, or will soon be hot again. Mosquitos—we talked about those too. The paper wasp nests growing in the eaves of my house. My hatred of having to maintain my lawn. Our AC units in decline. Home ownership demands the endless discussion of banalities, because it’s the leaky pipe, not Mothra or King Kong, that will destroy your home. We were talking and LauraBeth pulled me aside and told me it was time for mimosas but we didn’t have one of the two necessary ingredients, so I left.
If I were writing fiction, this is the part where I—or rather a character very similar to me, with a name like Skip McMillian, and a job as a freelance copy editor—would get behind the wheel and drive toward the Wawa and then experience a sudden change of heart at the traffic light. He, or rather I, would look at the full Wawa parking lot and then glance in the rearview and think of the futility of purchasing orange juice for birthday mimosas and then just keep driving. Skip would drive three towns away and knock on a mysterious door that he clearly knows but the reader does not, and then the first chapter would end, leaving the reader in suspense. On the other side of the door could be a criminal associate, setting the stage for a classic mystery. It could be an unrequited love, the first stage of a romance. It could be a wizard. Most likely, if I wrote it, the door would be answered by his second, secret wife, and the book would be about Skip finding himself, or about running from responsibility, or the numbing effects of life in the suburbs, or a fear of death. To add some gravitas to the whole thing, I, or rather Skip, would contract a terminal illness and then have to decide whether he can ever return to the home and family he had so rashly abandoned. I’d have to add a child in there, or at least a pregnancy. If I got really lucky I’d be able to stretch it to seventy thousand words and sell it to a pretty good press for ten thousand dollars and then get a couple authors to call it “penetrating” and “illuminating” and “deeply felt.”
It’s such a relief not to be writing fiction, not having to make all that shit up. Because I’m writing nonfiction, I can tell you: I parked at Wawa, next to the dry cleaner where the proprietor stands in the doorway all day smoking so that all the clothes she cleans come back smelling like cigarettes, and I bought the orange juice. At this Wawa, there are always long lines of rundown people who look like they’re banned from at least one bar. Some of them live in the apartment complex next door that rents moldy efficiencies for $500 a month. Fred, my father-in-law, lived there near the end of his life, after years of unemployment and illnesses; his bed filled most of the room, and everything was coated in the kind of sadness that can constrict your lungs.
There are small moments on my drives alone when I try to imagine my life as a different person and realize how limited my imagination is. What I come up with, most of the time, is something like: me, but ten pounds lighter. Or: me, but with a sandwich. Maybe this means I’m basically content. Maybe it means I’m so lacking in ambition that I can’t ever exceed my current level of achievement.
I paid for my orange juice and rushed home because it never even occurred to me to go somewhere else. LauraBeth is closer with her siblings than anybody I know, and yet I had the pressing feeling that she shouldn’t be left alone with them. That my job on her birthday was to be present and act as a barrier in case someone began to act in some way annoying or burdensome. My job was to be helpful, in general, and not to get too drunk because when I get too drunk I talk too much and I can tell she’s disappointed in me. After a couple mimosas, everyone else stopped drinking, so I did too, though I wanted another drink. There was a whole day left, and I had no idea how to fill it.
LauraBeth likes brunch because she struggles with chronic fatigue. If we’d had her family over for dinner, she would have spent the whole day worrying about getting to bed late. She would have convinced herself that staying up late one day would have a domino effect, and she would be on the verge of a spiral of anxiety that could ruin her whole week. She’s a strong person, stronger than me, but I’ve told her I worry she may be one more trauma away from really losing it. Maybe we’re all one trauma away from really losing it, and the line between lost and not is so thin and permeable that the only thing keeping most of us on the right side is the delusion that we belong there.
Here’s the punchline of this story, I always forget the punchlines: nobody knew I was gone. I had left my own house, in my car, and driven a half mile away, and everyone had continued as if I had been there the whole time. It’s not that I needed them to be waiting at the door with balloons and firecrackers. But of course I wondered how long I would have to be gone before someone noticed. In the novel I did not write, would Skip (or rather I) have disappeared while the rest of the family continued living as if I (or rather Skip) had never existed in the first place? It’s best not to think about some things for too long.