summer/fall 2007 no. 9
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summer/fall 2007 no. 9
Tornadoes Along a Möbius Strip
by James Warner
In the year following Greg's divorce, he and his seven-year-old daughter Helen had a computer game they played together before bedtime. In the game you were a sphere that could move forwards, backwards, to the right, or to the left, by pressing W, S, A, or D on the keyboard. The space bar let you jump. While trying to collect as many jewels as possible on a series of platforms, you had to avoid trap-doors, moving walls, bumpers, exploding devices etc. One mistake, and you soared downwards to expire in a lagoon far below. Irritating music played all the time. As a representation of life under capitalism, it was actually not that over-simplified.
Although Greg had faster reflexes, Helen was better at finding shortcuts. She often noticed useful things he didn't. She got lost less easily, if they were on a level where the topography was especially convoluted.
"I'm thirsty," she said, and Greg fetched her a glass of water.
Greg's girlfriend Priya stood outside on the fire-escape, smoking. Why was smoking sexy, Greg wondered? Perhaps the key thing there was the ability coolly to manipulate fire — that would certainly have been a trait propitious to survival in the Pleistocene epoch.
"Play the game some more," Helen said.
"Is that all the water you're going to drink?" Greg said, starting over. Pressing S and W, he bounced the sphere up a staircase. He had never played video games when he was a child, but now they helped him bond with his daughter. In other times, he might have taken her hunting with him. So many of her favorite games were about fleeing and hiding, requiring him to assume the role of a tiger or bear.
As Priya climbed back through the window, Helen took another tiny sip of water. "Isn't she asleep yet?" Priya said.
Greg and Priya had devised a plan whereby Priya could sleep over without freaking out Helen. Helen did not want to fall asleep with Priya there. She hated the idea of Priya sleeping in her daddy's bed.
"Wait," Greg said, "there's a jewel we've never gotten before and... aarrgghhhh!"
Helen, said, "You should have gotten out of the way of that bomb, Daddy."
"You're just a kid, I swear," Priya said, as Greg shut the laptop.
"Let me sleep in your bed, Daddy," Helen said.
It was a long time since she'd asked to do this. Priya looked at Greg quizzically. People who didn't have kids never understood how unnaturally it came to children to sleep apart from their parents.
The cluttered flat grew darker.
Greg tried to solve the problem autocratically. "Helen will sleep in her room," he said. "Priya will sleep in my room. I will sleep on the sofa."
This did not satisfy anyone. Priya went into Greg's room and closed the door. Greg lay down on the sofa, but Helen came over to him and said, "I want to sleep with my daddy."
"You're not going to let her get her own way again, are you?" Priya called from Greg's room.
"But daddy!" Greg tried to reason with his daughter, but "I love you daddy," was finally all she would say, over and over, in her most theatrical little-girl voice. "I want to be near you."
"I hope you're not going to fall for this performance," Priya snapped.
Normally Greg could have dealt with this by letting Helen sleep next to him for a few minutes, until she fell asleep. She was obviously extremely tired. But tonight he also had to demonstrate to Priya that he didn't always let Helen get her way.
So he put her back in her bed, and she returned to the sofa, and then moments later it all happened again. "If you're not going to show her she can't manipulate you like this, I'm leaving," Priya said.
"Don't marry Priya, daddy," Helen said. "She's evil."
Priya began aggressively getting dressed and packing her things."We're not going to get married," Greg said. The cat walked along the piano, composing an avant-garde étude, as Priya slammed the door. "And she's not evil."
"She has an evil laugh," Helen said, and imitated Priya's cackle with uncanny accuracy before falling asleep.
The cat woke Greg up the next morning, by smashing a glass he'd left on a table. Helen was already up and playing the next level of the game.
Greg was sweeping away the broken glass, still feeling emotionally depleted from the night before, when Priya telephoned. "Why did you tell Helen we weren't going to marry?"
"We already agreed we aren't going to marry."
"I don't know why I'm wasting my time with you," Priya said. It was a conversation they had a lot.
The cat was raptly attending the dawn chorus.
After a long pause, Priya said, "It doesn't work when I sleep over with you while Helen's there."
"No," Greg said. "We can't do that again. I'll see you at twelve. We'll talk more about it then."
"Okay," Priya said.
"I got to the next level, Daddy," Helen called.
Greg went over to see. "How did you get past both those tornadoes in just three seconds?"
"You try, Daddy."
"Okay. But you get dressed. It's time to go to your mother's house."
For this new level, you had to fall onto a Möbius strip and travel along its surface, which always made Greg feel strange. There were a couple of anti-gravity devices to pick up along the way, and two tornadoes to get past. The game was supposed to get harder with each new level, but since people's brains are different, there was never any guarantee you'd find the next level harder. Getting to the jewel at this level would be impossible for anyone who tried to edge their way around the tornadoes — Greg would learn later that this always led to being blown off into the lagoon — but if you went straight through the heart of each tornado, letting the force of the whirlwinds carry you in faster and faster circles, you got swept all the way to the summit in no time at all.
And for both Greg and Helen, as it turned out, this was the strategy they thought of first of all. Why couldn't he be like that in real life?
The cat sank its fangs into Greg's foot, and he kicked it out of the way. He would never be a cat person. But studies showed children did better after a divorce if they had pets, and Helen's mother had custody of the dogs now... and the jeep, and the CD player... and Helen had always wanted a cat, so he'd gotten a cat.
And Helen loved the cat, even though to give it any affection she had to pin it down first, and sometimes it scratched her. She was almost dressed now and ready to go to her mother's house, except that it took ten minutes to find her shoes, because the cat had dragged them under the sofa.
On the way down in the elevator, Helen pressed the buttons for all the different floors. It was a trick Priya had taught her.
The drive from Russian Hill to Nob Hill took Greg only five minutes today. Outside Helen's mother's house, he double-parked, walked around and opened Helen's door and then, to force himself to be patient, zoned out for a while. When he stopped daydreaming, Helen still hadn't moved.
"Time to get out of the car," he suggested.
As a boy, he'd never understood his own father's impatience at these moments. With infinite slowness, Helen got out and stood in the middle of the road. A truck was coming, about a block away. Greg put a hand on Helen's back to encourage her in the direction of the sidewalk, and she screamed, "I hate you, I hate you, I hate you."
When she started moving towards the sidewalk, he took his hand away. What she objected to was him helping her cross the road. But he had gotten her back to her mother alive. "I love you too," he said.
"Why are you so stupid?" Helen said. Her rudeness was a sign of her confidence that she owned him, as much as was the sweet smiling wave she gave him from her mother's doorstep, before being buzzed in, her anger already forgotten.
"See you tomorrow," he called. He missed her already, but he also knew that the secret of happiness lay in maneuvering powerful conflicting impulses into some sort of balance. He needed the break.
"Goodbye daddy," Helen called, and blew him a kiss. How to explain the sweetness and the fatigue of parenthood, to someone who didn't know?
"She likes me, but she hates me," Priya said.
"I wouldn't say that." They were walking along Stinson Beach. Greg had a momentary feeling that anything was better than going around the edges of the tornadoes, that he should jump straight into the heart of the storm.
Unfortunately, he recognized this as the feeling that had led him to marry his ex-wife.
And look how that turned out -- a perpetual reminder to err on the side of caution. The beige arc of the beach stretched out in front of them, and the sand was soft and clean underfoot. "Helen does like you," Greg agreed, "and she feels threatened by you."
Priya said, "I hate it that you spend more time with her than you do with me." She stopped to pick up a seashell. "But then I think, if you weren't like that, I wouldn't even want to spend time with you. I'd just think you were a louse."
Greg breathed in the aromas of salt water and wet pine. For Priya, marriage would be a leap into the unknown. But Greg could look at the charming flaws in Priya's character and, as if looking through a microscope, perceive what insufferable aggravations they would become if he had to live with them indefinitely. The surf surged right up to the edge of his shoe, and he stepped out of its way.
"The reason I can't marry you," Priya said, "is that I'd have to be allowed to discipline Helen."
A crowd of people had formed ahead of them on the beach. Something was wrong.
"And you spoil her. You'd never let me bring her up properly. You let her be rude to you."
The people were surrounding a seal. As Greg and Priya drew closer, the seal seemed rude, unformed, almost foetal, not so much because of its appearance, more because it had no fear. Greg said, "If anything, she treats me more respectfully than she did before the divorce."
"I don't think I even want to have kids," Priya said, for about the seventeenth time that week. She had just turned thirty. Part of her mind was starting to accept that she might not end up having everything that she wanted. And all her friends were getting married, not a good reason to get married herself, yet a compelling one.
When the seal made eye contact with Priya, and pulled itself towards her across the sand with its powerful flippers, she instinctively backed away. You couldn't not back away from something that was behaving so inappropriately. It was as if this seal did not know it was wild. It did the same thing to Greg, and he backed away too.
"I think it's trying to get back to the sea," a bystander said (or remarked or .....).
But when Greg and Priya tried backing towards the waves, luring the seal back to the ocean, the seal always veered away at ninety degrees before they reached the water. Clearly the seal knew where the ocean was, and wanted nothing to do with it.
Priya pointed out a scar on the seal's head.
"Its mother's probably dead," Greg muttered, as a dog approached along the beach. "It doesn't know what to do."
Priya stood with her hands outstretched in an attempt to protect the seal from the dog. But a man there said it was his dog, and Priya put her hands down. The seal drew itself towards the dog, and the dog winced and backed away in alarm.
"That seal's psychotic," the dog's owner said. "They told me about it at the store."
"This is Marin County," Priya said, as the dog ran on ahead. "Even the seals have issues."
A man passed, his underpants hung so low they revealed about three inches of his butt. He reached down and petted the seal. It nipped him. "Did you get bitten?" Greg said.
"It's nothing," the man said stiffly, and walked away, trying to be macho about it.
Greg and Priya walked on a little way.
When they stopped and looked back, the seal was propelling itself after them along the sand, alongside an ocean that glowed like lava. Greg and Priya exchanged looks, nodded, and undressed.
They left their clothes on the beach and ran out into the surf. The seal followed them to the water's edge and then stopped. Having no desire to return, it was pretending not to notice the ocean.
Copyright © 2007 Entelechy: Mind & Culture. New Paltz, NY. All rights reserved.