October 11, 2012
I am like everyone else — good at some things, bad at others. I am good at eating clementines. I am bad at drawing straight lines. I am good at drinking coffee. I would be bad at building a house. If someone asked me to build them a house, I would have to say no. Or I would say yes and worry they would not like the house I built. Why is the kitchen made of coffee filters, they’d say? Why are there no floors? And I’d say, I wish you hadn’t asked me to build you a house.
I am bad at telling stories. For example, this one is about Christ- mas lights and here is the first time I’m mentioning them. A person who knew how to tell a story would start with, This is a story about Christmas lights I finally got around to putting up last night and the miracle that happened afterward. You know how it is at a party when someone tells an absolute gripper that juggles different characters and lands on a memorable line and everyone holds their stomachs and looks at each other in shocked amazement, a line people repeat on car rides home so they can laugh again? I am not that person. I am the one asking the host what kind of cheese it is I’m eating.
The name of the planet I’m from does not have an English equivalent. Roughly, it sounds like a cricket hopping onto a plate of rice. I am here to take notes on human beings. I fax them back to my superiors. We have fax machines on Planet Cricket Rice. They are quaint retro things, like vintage ice-cube trays.
Human beings, I fax, produce water in their eyes when they are sad, happy, or sometimes just frustrated. Water!
I work as a receptionist for Landry Business Solutions. I have no idea what we do. When people ask I say, When businesses have problems, we have solutions. If they press me, I say it involves outsourcing. A monkey could do my job better and with more hilarious results. I answer the phone, keep the candy jar filled, and monitor the bathroom key. Ten minutes out of my twenty- minute training were candy jar–related. The other ten consisted of bathroom key shakedown tactics. People are always losing the bathroom key, and the receptionist before me must have gotten frustrated because she hot-glued it to a twelve-inch ruler. I have no friends at Landry Business Solutions. I assume they are too busy outsourcing and thinking of solutions. They don’t bother me and, unless they receive a FedEx package, I don’t bother them.
Human beings, I fax, fetishize no organ more than the heart. When they like someone they say, There’s a girl after my own heart. They will stand or sit very close to the person they love with their heart. When they are sad they say, My heart is broken. They will tell large groups of people things they don’t believe. But the heart is just a muscle with an important job. Just an area in the body.
Human beings with bad eyes, I fax, like to try on each other’s glasses. It’s because they want to imagine themselves as new people, not because they want to see out of someone else’s eyes. After the trade is made, one human being normally says, Wow, you are blind.
I am bad at asking for help. When you ask a human being for help, there is a chance they will say later, Remember when you asked for help? Can I have five dollars? That goes for medicine too. I don’t like asking help from pills in a bottle. I don’t want to be wo- ken up at night by a tab of aspirin asking to borrow five dollars.
There’s a reason it’s called alien-ated. Because I am an alien, I am alone. When you are alone, there is no one to tell, “There is a bird whose call sounds like hoo where la hoo!” Or, “There’s a spider landing on your head.” So you tell yourself. There’s a spider land- ing on my head. I should move.
Of course there are good days. Days when the clementine skin pulls off whole, days I don’t see anyone in a wheelchair on my way to the train.
A week ago, my mother and I were chopping peppers and she said, Let them be big enough so each one is its own mouthful. I don’t like when she says words like mouthful, words that cannot be divorced from sex. Other words like that are suck, fingerhole, and cock. I asked her not to say mouthful anymore. She hopped up and down with the knife in her hand singing, Mouthful! When I got home the Christmas lights snarled at me from their ball on the couch. I ate a mouthful of ice cream and wondered how appliances can be programmed to turn themselves on. If a coffee maker can turn itself on, doesn’t that mean it is never truly off?
Human beings, I fax, spend their lives pretending their parents are people with no needs. They do not want their moms to talk about sex or die.
Human beings, I fax, did not think their lives were challenging enough so they invented roller coasters. A roller coaster is a series of problems on a steel track. Upon encountering real problems, human beings compare their lives to riding a roller coaster, even though they invented roller coasters to have fun things to do on their days off.
Human beings in America, I fax, are separated by how they pro- nounce the word draw. Draw. Drawr. Drawl, with an l at the end of it. The l is for Live your life. Live your life is what the tattoo said on the lady in line at the liquor store who, when I neglected to notice an open cashier, growled at me that we weren’t getting any younger. I had been daydreaming about drinking coffee, and when she growled I stared at the tattoo for a few seconds, snapping out of it. In not one of those seconds did either of us get any younger.
As a child on Planet Cricket Rice, I lay in bed trying to figure out a way I could know everyone on Planet Earth. America was easy, I could drive through it. Then I would send a letter to one person in every country and they could tell their friends and I could know everyone by association. But language was a problem and I didn’t know every country’s name and I used to get panicky and red-eyed about it.
I have other responsibilities at my job. I seat clients who have problems and are waiting for solutions. Sometimes the person with solutions is late. When people are late to meet me, I assume it’s because they lost track of time while planning my surprise birthday party. I worry; will they remember I like chocolate on chocolate? But most human beings don’t like when other people are late. They get frowny-faced and huffy. So I entertain the clients who wait for solutions. I make the candy jar talk or I tell them I have a friend who has vintage ice-cube trays. You pull a silver crank to release the cubes. I say, Would you like to own vintage ice-cube trays? Normally they say yes because, when they are waiting, human beings can be very participatory. Then I say, Not me! I don’t need getting ice to be a charming experience! I pretend to be very anti–vintage ice-cube tray. In this way I yank the tablecloth out from under the bottle of wine and candle of the conversation.
Marie-Helene Bertino’s collection of short stories SAFE AS HOUSES received The 2012 Iowa Short Fiction Award and will be published in October of 2012. She hails from Philadelphia and lives in Brooklyn. Find out more at www.mariehelenebertino.com.
Adapted from Safe as Houses by Marie-Helene Bertino. Copyright © 2012 by Marie-Helene Bertino. With the permission of the publisher, University of Iowa Press.