Dena brought a large box out into the dining room, where her guests were gathered around her table at the end of the evening’s meal. She bobbed from the knees like an excited schoolgirl, and smiled with eyes wide, as she introduced the object to her friends.
“We’re so lucky that Joaquin has a friend in Seattle who invents things, and let’s us be his guinea pigs!”
Joaquin beamed as his wife effortlessly brought the box to the table, and set it down inside the perimeter of coffee cups and dessert plates with half eaten pound cake slices bathed in pools of strawberries in custard sauce. She moved to open the top of the box, but he touched her hand and motioned for her to wait. She sat down again by her own plate, and listened as he spoke. “Andy’s come up with some cool things before, maybe not everyone’s cup of tea, but still great things. But this one — he’s outdone himself this time. He’s still wondering about it, but his wife and family, and us — we’re all sure he’s going to be famous for this!
“The point is, that we are his guinea pigs and we’d like you to be, too! But rest assured, it’ll be fun, and it’s not in any way dangerous. He wants us all to know that he hasn’t used anything like microwaves, or whatever that is in cell phones that we’re supposed to be careful about. He’s not even sure why the components he put together make it work. He just knows that they do. He calls it a Comprehensor.” Joaquin stood up and opened the box. He drew out a large, hard, grayish cap that looked much like a smoother and less angular sort of bicycle helmet, and put it on his head. He stretched out his arms and said, “Ta-daaaa!”
Some of his guests laughed outright. Some twittered about how ridiculous he looked in it. Dena was still smiling while she shushed her guests a bit and said, “Come on! It’s what it does — not what it looks like!”
Joaquin took off the cap and put it down beside his plate. He removed the box to the floor by the wall, and looked at Dena’s sister, Vicky. “To help illustrate what the Comprehensor does, Dena got your mom’s recipe for Blackberry Dumplings, and made some to augment our meal.”
Vicky looked as if she had just smelled something odd. “Excuse me?” she said.
“I know, I know,” Dena said patting her sister’s hand. “I was the only one in the house who loved Mom’s Blackberry Dumplings, but trust us.” She reached out to her husband, and he placed the Comprehensor in her hands. Then she told him, “We’ll get this on while you get the dumplings.” She paused, holding the cap in her hands, asking her sister with her eyes. Vicky sat still and said nothing as her sister gently placed the Comprehensor on her head.
Joaquin came back with a small plate of the dreaded dessert, putting it next to Vicky’s plate of pound cake. “It’s worked every time we used it, but if it doesn’t this time you’ve at least got cake to make the flavor go away.”
Vicky was tight-lipped for a moment, but finally said, “I take it that this thing is supposed to make the Blackberry Dumplings taste better?”
“Yes,” said Dena, “because I’m sitting next to you, and I like them.”
“I see a practical joke coming on!” said Dena’s boyfriend, Bill, laughing. “I can’t just sit by and let this happen. Don’t eat it, Vicky!”
Dena stopped smiling. “I would never do something like that. It’s just easier to explain what it does, if we show you first. It’s worked every time.”
Vicky shot a quick look at Joaquin, and he stopped smiling, too. The three of them were the only ones who seemed to have lost touch with the humor of the situation. Before the uncomfortableness took complete hold of the room, Vicky went ahead and lifted a spoonful of the dumpling with blackberries, closed her eyes, and put it in her mouth. There was a quietness, combined with breathy snickering and prickly anticipation, throughout the room as they all waited for whatever came next.
“What the… ,” said Vicky. She chewed, then swallowed. “This is a joke! What’s in this? How did you make it taste so good?”
The room came alive again as everyone began to speak at once.
“Wait. What just happened?”
“It is a joke, right?”
“How does it do that?”
“Is that really her mom’s Blackberry Dumplings?”
“Okay, somebody explain to me what just happened!”
Dena caught their attention as her sister continued to eat the plate of dumplings. “That’s what it does! The Comprehensor helps you understand what another person feels, as long as they’re physically close to you, like I am to Vicky right now. She can taste how good I think Mom’s dumplings are!”
Bill watched Vicky use the spoon to scrape her plate clean, and struck by the sight, he turned to Dena, “She’s sitting next to me, too–how can I make it happen with me?”
“You have to precipitate it somehow,” Dena answered. “That’s why we used the dumplings. Try asking her a question, or just mention something you feel strongly about.”
Vicky stopped eating and looked expectantly at Bill. She waited for him to think of something.
He smiled, then his smile faltered as he looked down at what remained of his dessert. Softly, he said, “The Three Stooges.”
There were chuckles around the table, and though his skin was the color of a golden brown caramel, the blush in his cheeks could still be seen.
Vicky took his hand under the table, and leaned in to her boyfriend, looking him in the eye. “The Three Stooges are funny!” she said, her excitement clear to everyone. “Watching them is like being very young again, when life was simpler…” She giggled, and took off the cap. “Now you try!”
After nearly an hour, the cap came to the last friend at the table, Annette. As she stared at it in her hands, the others wound down again as they had for each of them, quieting as the focus shifted entirely to her, waiting for her to take her turn. She lifted her chin and sniffed as she turned it around in her hands and finally placed it on the table.
“What’s wrong, Annette?” Joaquin asked. “Don’t you want to try the cap?”
She looked around the room at the others, and said, “Really? You’ve got to be kidding. You should all have seen yourselves. This thing is so ugly. I wouldn’t be caught dead in it.”
Joaquin searched her face for something, for anything. He opened his mouth, but had no words. As he sat frozen next to Annette, he heard his wife ask her if she was joking. Annette sniffed again as she shook her head, then asked if there was any more cake. Joaquin reached for the cap as his wife slowly got up and went to the kitchen to oblige their friend. He moved to put the cap on, but stopped and only held it in front of his head for a moment, then turned and placed it carefully back into its box and closed the lid.
The dinner party was nearly done, winding down naturally, the way those parties generally do, despite the feeling that there was now something clinging in the air, words unspoken. Later, alone, Joaquin and Dena were happy that most of their friends were delighted with the cap. They decided to tell the good news to their friend in Seattle the next day. Then they wondered why, underneath, they were feeling so uneasy, and they began to search for those words that were still around them that seemed to encroach openness and light, eager to explain what they didn’t want to comprehend, still clinging, like weights.