Undertow

by Liam Scheff
15 of 15×15

Boat-Basin-Cafe-2

“It was always too late,” she says, fully articulate, loosened by alcohol, bordering between convivial and hostile, and back to jovial. She’s holding court, and we are no longer her peers, but her subjects.

“The human species is a kind of animal. And if we’re going to understand the rest of the story, we’re going to have to understand something about this animal that we are.” She says it flatly. It’s not up for debate, and we’re cowed, over-awed, listening.

I do marvel at her in these moods.

She keens her focus on Emily, seeking out the protest in her eyes. Emily is a darling girl, and imagines that the world is a kind of darling place. Rachel seeks to puncture that illusion. She reaches in, gently but firmly:

“We don’t like to think of ourselves this way, we avoid self-analysis on a grand scale.” She holds Emily’s eyes. “We’re ‘unique’ and ‘special’ and ‘one of a kind.'” She lets us hear the words, and wrestle for a moment with our identification with them. “We are, of course, as unique as farmed rabbits as far as time and the Earth are concerned.” She takes a sip of the purple wine.

“Rabbits, or…or rats. Or pigs. Or, if we are more varied, then in our variety there are still patterns – small ears, sharp, hard teeth…” she trails off. “Should I tell you what kind of animal we are?”

I met Rachel at the movies. A terrible place to meet and fall in love. You can’t talk. You stare forward in lamp-lit darkness staring at a miserable production. You hope to be able to dissect the performance afterward, which, thankfully, we did. But she didn’t fall in love. It was just me. But she tolerated the company because we share a lecture together; Trends in 20th Century Anthropology.

I was immediately drawn into her undertow – so great is her effect on words, feelings, images in me – that it’s the pull of deep water. We’re out with a group – not a date, of course. She’d never have me. I’m too skinny, too bony, too intellectual. She’s a brilliant creature but likes the company of artists – and I am but an admirer of the arts. And so I give no indication of my fixation – why should I? It’s enough to breathe in her thoughts and go home with the ideas she has fertilized in my mind.

Olson tries to respond to her, explaining in his nattering way that ‘choice’ trumps ‘determinism.’ She visibly waves him off and, taking another sip, holds the wine glass like a bauble as she straightens him out, miming her intention all the while.

“You study film. Shall I tell you a story to make it all make sense? So that you can understand what’s happening out there? Because it is happening, whether you understand it or you don’t. So, what does it matter if you understand it? Shit! Let’s just cut to the climax – past the car chase. The hero is on the ledge, he’s got the girl in one arm, the ancient idol in the other hand. The evil minions are approaching  –  does he make it? Can they leap the gorge? Will the good professor come just in time in a hot air balloon? What happens next?” Olsen is slightly taken aback. He feels mocked. She softens her tone.

“You’ve seen that movie a million times. Anything and everything can happen. The advancing horde slips on a banana peel. Across the gorge, the marching army has finally made it – just in time – past the armies of evil – and begins hurling their spears and firing their bullets. The hero, the girl and the gold make the leap and slide down the inflatable blimp, sewn together from massive sheets of torn sailcloth that the professor salvaged from the ship, powered by the fuel furnace we saw working the boat earlier…”

Olsen starts to laugh. He’s getting it. She lifts her chin slightly and announces, “It’s a miracle!” Olsen isn’t sure if she’s mocking his response, or continuing the story. He waits, anxiously. She commences.

“You walk out of the movie, into the light of day, squint your eyes, and wonder why the real world is so boring. Well, let me tell you something, friends. Your lives are about to get a lot more interesting.” She stops focusing on Olsen and returns to the group at large.

“But here’s the downside…” We keen in, wanting more. She launches:

“It is you who is on the cliff, and you don’t even know it. And when you take that one step backwards, it’s already too late. There is no ship, no boat, no professor. No friendly army fighting the horde on your behalf. It’s just you and a nation of zombies, turning inward like a toenail growing back into the flesh, too quickly.”

Emily crumples her napkin in one fist unintentionally, a nervous response. Rachel looks at her. “This isn’t the movie version. And we don’t all make it.” She takes a good sip of wine, and then, “How do I tell you that it’s all over? How do I tell you a story in which the end comes at the beginning?”

I breathe in deeply. I’d pay gladly to see her go up against that idiotic Michelstein, that flamboyant Pollyanna regurgitating his failed ideology to us in Political Science. But she’s speaking again and I return from dreaming.

“We are…” she pauses for a sip, “an insane species – apparently by design. Delusional, short-term in our thinking, wed to fantasy outcomes, driven by desires and passions. Hardly a clear-thinking creature in most respects – we’re tribal, hierarchical, subordinating critical thinking in any power structure to the he or she slightly above in a nearly meaningless and arbitrary pecking order.”

We’re dazzled.  

”And that would be bad enough – but. But, welded into this myth-making animal is an unholy technical ability to manipulate the world around us. Our tool-making ability is so far in advance of our ability to understand, constrain and non-destructively USE tools…It’s as though the maker of all things really decided to ‘see what happens if’ when making us.” 

She mimes the role of a creator: “What happens when we combine these imbalanced personality gifts and deficits into one illogical, defensive, easily-frightened, easily-aggravated, story-making monkey? Well, let’s have a try and see!”

We all warm into an appreciative laugh, and clap our hands for the stirring performance. Olsen, no longer objecting, sits back in the chair in the outdoor café, and asks her if she believes in hope. Emily seems to approve, and lets go of her much-abused napkin.

Rachel takes the stage again lightly. She begins to smile that inward-looking, warming glance that only she can perform. “I hope.” She tilts the final liquid from her glass into her clever mouth. “I hope,” she says, swallowing. “That there are still jobs for us…” and now she is laughing, and so are we, “when we finish university!”

We all stand and stretch in the evening air, before our walk to our respective housing, and she seems to be getting away. I catch up to her and ask her if she enjoyed the evening. She says yes, and thanks me for arranging it. She says that she’ll see me in class. I watch her walk away.

I do marvel at her in these moods.

–          –          –

This is Story 15 in 15×15. A story written and edited in one to two hours with no major revisions.

Liam Scheff is author of Official Stories, The Geneticals, and co-author of Summer of ’74, and its teaser comic – all available on Amazon and/or Kindle.

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About Liam Scheff

"Author, Artist, Film, Permaculture." Liam Scheff is a writer, artist and stand-up lecturer on issues that people usually don't make comic books about. (Visit liamscheff.com). Liam's highly-praised book "Official Stories" reveals the complex details behind the myths of our times.
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