This story first appeared in the post on April 20th. Most readers felt that it needed more, that its point was more than ambiguous. So here it is again after a few weeks, and finally, a rewrite that feels right to me. For those who don’t need to start again at the beginning, you can scroll down to the asterisks (**) on the left and begin where the rewrite begins. Many thanks to anyone who gives it a read, especially if you take the time to comment, and I promise that not every story on the blog will be this long! (It isn’t really, it just seems that way !)
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!”
Joaquin was beaming again, and their dining room was filled with sounds of excitement and the murmur of imminent possibility. In turn, they were each trying the cap, to have someone understand why they felt what they felt, to know that their point of view would be understood, even if later it wouldn’t be agreed with — it would at least, for now, for always, be understood.
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, anything to help him as he struggled to understand, but she simply smiled as she scooped up the last bite of cake left on her plate. He had known this woman through her friendship with his wife for much longer than the ten years he and Dena had been married, yet he felt unprepared to ask Annette what felt like a very personal question. He stammered while simultaneously considering his approach. His heartbeat felt suddenly aggressive, pounding inside him like a stranger trying to get out, though he only wanted to slide away from the moment to a calmer space where there was no ambiguity and there were no questions. After a few awkward attempts, he settled on a question. “Are… you afraid of the cap?”
Annette’s expression changed to one of confusion. “What?” She leaned slightly forward as she repeated her question into Joaquin’s eyes, “What?”
He tried again. “I was… I mean, of course it’s your decision, your choice… but I was just wondering if… well it can’t really be what the cap looks like. There must be something else. I…I’m not asking you to tell us anything personal. It’s just that we’re all friends here. I was just wondering if there’s another reason?” He tried to look pleasant, to look different from the way he felt inside. He realized that he had picked up the Comprehensor and was holding it in his hands, and that he couldn’t quite stop his hands from shaking. Annette’s expression deepened, and he felt the need to go on. “I just mean… you wouldn’t want us to think that you were, were…”
Bill interjected. “Shallow?”
Vicky’s raised eyebrows appeared to echo Bill’s finish to her brother-in-law’s query, even as she put a hand on Bill’s arm under the table and gave a gentle, quieting squeeze.
Joaquin couldn’t cover his embarrassment as Annette looked around the table again, uneasy this time, yet defiantly so. “Excuse me?” She stretched the phrase out for effect, and waited for a response.
She had come with her fiancé, Ryan, and he sat beside her, not quite looking at her but seeming to be just as perplexed as the others. “Honey,” he said softly, “The way you said it was just kind of insulting to the others.”
“Insulting?” she said, raising her voice. “He just insulted me!” She turned to Joaquin. “I’ve been sitting here, bored while you all go on and on about this, this thing! I didn’t try to stop you all from having fun, but now I’m a liar because I don’t care about this stuff? Because I don’t want to play this game?”
Dena had been quiet until now, searching the room from her friend’s face to her empty dessert plate, and then smoothing out the nearest section of organic cotton tablecloth. “It’s not a game,” she said finally, finding her voice. “And nobody’s questioning your right not to do something. We just don’t get what you said. We’re asking you to talk to us and not dismiss us.”
Annette shook her head. “What’s not to get? I said what I meant! You don’t think it’s ugly–okay fine! But you don’t get to call me a liar, or… what did you say?” She turned back to Bill and pointed her finger at him. “Shallow? Like I have to care about that thing? Like there aren’t some actual important things in the world? What the hell is going on here?”
“What about the possible good the cap could do?” Dena answered. “Even if you don’t want to try it, it’s like you can’t see the possibilities of it. Like you’re not even arguing with us about the merits of it, or what you think is wrong with it! Talk to us about what you really think! We’re all friends here.”
“You’re all acting like this is seriously important or something!” Annette was shouting now. “How could this be important? It’s just a game!”
Dena looked incredulous. “What if… what if it could be used someplace like the U.N.? If there was a dispute, and some representative of a country could ask for permission to use the cap for clarity– it could help even more than the earphones that translate the speakers into the other languages. They wouldn’t have to agree, but at least they could really get the other point of view. It could work for everybody–unless they don’t want to be understood!”
“The U.N.? Oh, come on! Really?” Annette sighed, throwing up her hands and leaning far back into her chair. Catching sight of the Comprehensor again, her attention returned to Joaquin. “Okay. Since everyone’s so sure I’m a liar, put the damn thing on and ask me what I think.”
Joaquin hesitated. “If you don’t want to, none of us wants to make you. That’s not the point.”
“I’m tired of this, Joaquin! This is so insulting, I want to go home. But not before you all stop calling me a liar and realize that you’re the ones with the problem–not me!” She folded her arms with the challenge, and waited.
Joaquin took his time. Everyone was watching. He wanted a reprieve, but couldn’t find a way out of it. When the cap was on his head again, he turned to his friend and asked, “Why would you rather not try the Comprehensor?”
Annette straightened in her chair and spoke slowly at Joaquin. “I think it’s ugly, stupid, and ridiculous. It doesn’t make any sense, and it isn’t fun.” She raised her eyebrows again and began to tap her fingertips on the table, watching as he removed the cap and set it down. She raised her fingers and wiggled them in the air, mocking him with the serious tone of a newscaster, “So what does the marvelous All-Seeing Comprehensor say about Annette?”
“That you said exactly what you think.”
“Oh! Oh, so I’m not a liar? Wow! Isn’t that amazing?” She rose from her chair. “We’re leaving now, Ryan.”
Her fiancé put his napkin on the table, and got up to follow her. He spoke softly to the others, “I wish I knew what to say.” She was already in the living room and they had all heard the front door open when he added, “I’ll try and talk to her. I’m sorry.”
“No, please, don’t worry about it,” Dena said. “I mean, just… thank you for coming.”
None of the others spoke of what had just happened between them during the few moments after the two had gone. There were knitted brows and truncated expressions of disbelief as hesitation morphed into reticence, and then silence. Soon a familiar path was found out of the maze. “More dessert all around?” And the hosts led their guests back to conversation and the more natural wind down to an evening that friends would expect, though it did end faster than usual, with the feeling that there was now something unpleasant clinging in the air.
Later, alone, Joaquin and Dena decided to wait until the next day to tell their friend in Seattle how delighted most of their friends had been with the cap. They went about the business of cleaning up and putting away, and while moving through the quieter progression of readying themselves for bed, they began to examine why, underneath, they were still feeling so uneasy. They talked late into the night, searching for those words that were lingering, creeping into the comfortable space they’d made in their lives and eager to explain to them what they didn’t want to comprehend. Unwillingly they examined those words that seemed to encroach openness and light, those words that were still clinging in the air around them, like weights.