So as it says in the description, this here story is an answer to Roentgen's Iron Chef challenge over that the PPMB to write a short story about all the Daria characters Susie Lewis sketched out in the "20 Years Later" article in Entertainment Weekly. As you can probably also see, it stopped being a short story about twenty pages ago, to quote Daria herself.
Brevity and I have never gotten along.
Special thanks to all the readers over at PPMB (there's a few changes to the prose, thanks to the blackout forcing me to go line-to-line like a Marine in Fallujah in order to delete all the weird symbols - "damn technology!" as Jake would say), and also special thanks to Joe Pesci. For no particular reason - I just think he doesn't get enough thanks now that he's retired.
And thanks to Glenn Eichler and Susie Lewis for creating an amazing show that made unrelenting cynicism seem human again, of course, but now I just feel like I'm getting mushy. And padding out the word count with a self-indulgent introduction. Oh my.
(MTV owns all things - no money has been made by this author in his entire life)
The More Things Change...
"Time may change me. But I can't trace time."
I looked at the script, then I looked at the powdered-up, black haired bimbo of a man parked behind the 'host's desk' on the sound-stage. The line he was supposed to say (and being that it was one of the few jokes of mine that had actually made it into the script, it was a pretty damn important line to me) was: "I'd love to be able to tell you folks that Homeland Security isn't overstepping any legal or ethical boundaries here, but if I'm going to be totally honest with you, that's just the hand they shoved up my ass talking." Then he'd jerk around in his chair like a malfunctioning puppet and the flashing applause sign would attack anyone in the audience with epilepsy. It would be further proof that I lived in a writer's paradise, right here in New York City.
But I knew that he'd pick this moment to improvise, because he always picked this moment to improvise. If he didn't ad-lib one of my lines, it was because he was too drunk to come up with anything new. If he ad-libbed someone else's lines, it was because they were too drunk to come up with anything new. And lo and behold, when it came time to spit out my joke—not before, not after—he said: "And I'm sure everything is going to be completely fine! Hey, did I say that right, fellas?"
The applause sign flashed as he bent down and consulted his shoe-laces. Completely unsurprised (and yet still insulted, damn me), I slapped the script down on the nearest table and disappeared into the monkey-house that was the back-stage. If anyone who was trapped back there knew what was good for them, they'd leave me alone and let me swear in peace. Being that I worked for the largest collection of brain-damaged hyenas on this side of the White House, my fellow writers and actors and underpaid court-jesters wouldn't know what was good for them unless it stapled a check to their foreheads (and only then if it exceeded the WGA's requisite minimum number of zeroes). Just my luck, though, I was left alone as I walked through the chaotic flow of people. I bet you'll never guess why—certainly couldn't have been my attitude towards carbon-based life-forms.
That was, unfortunately, the life of a token-female writer on a late-night talk show, or at least one that approached controversial subject matter the same way an arachnophobe would approach a tarantula. As the only one on staff who actually gave a damn about the sick, sad world we lived in, I was branded as whiny and bossy by the rest of the galley almost immediately. "Go write for Colbert if you're so damn woke!" one of the senior writers told me, because to him all I had to do was flash my tits and Stephen would sign me on the spot. I don't even know what the hell woke means, but then again, I guess I'm just old fashioned in that I like to use my brain more than 20% of the time. It also meant that I was perfectly conscious as the writing room scribbled inane banter onto each and every script, as opposed to hard-hitting satire that punched up at the people in power and made those on the ground feel like they could afford to laugh at the horror of it all. You know, the kind of thing writers tell other writers in crowded MFA classrooms in order to justify the obscene tuition charges as some kind of investment in a future public good. "Well whoever suckered me into this business is going to get nothing but bounced checks," I'd tell my reflection almost every day—or I did until I grew completely numb. Much like poor Alex in A Clockwork Orange, everything I once loved about the one socially acceptable thing I was good at eventually became battery acid for me, and I had the bruises on my knuckles to prove it. (If you were thinking that I was about to drop a reference about "gin-scented tears" or "Room 101," then I'd advise you to stop being so inconsiderate—the government works far harder than David does to be Big Brother and they deserve to be recognized for that...not that I'd have had the energy to say so back then...)
Anyways, that was my day-to-day existence, so far as you could call it that. Abandoning animation after I realized Adult Swim doesn't hire women, throwing aside journalism after I realized I'd have to compete with Fox and CNN (god, remember when Breitbart didn't exist?), resigning myself to the fact that the only way I'd get any stories or novels published was through Kindle—yes, I really should have stayed in school. And I don't mean college, I mean High School—not a day passes where I don't wish Ms. Li had chopped off my head with that fire axe.
I finally reached the writers room and quickly gathered up my things. No point in staying, I told myself, none of the window ledges are high enough. If you're wondering why I had stuck around when I knew the universe would keep on its same rusted track, the answer is quite simple: I was collecting more evidence so that there was absolutely no way I could delude myself into thinking that everything was fine, just fine, thanks for asking. I guess that's my default way of rationalizing why I do what I do—I figure it's better to know you're in the Second Circle of Hell than to pretend you're actually just in Limbo. Clearly such a proclamation must come from a healthy and happy mind.
The trek back through the studio was more complicated, as there was a break in taping. All the little cogs in the show's machinery were flying about like the sound-stage had just exploded, which meant that if I wanted to avoid human interaction, I'd have to start walking on the walls. Or grow quivers like a bipedal porcupine, I guess, but wall-crawling powers would have other applications beyond just being anti-social. Neither projectiles nor sticky fingers came to my aid that day, though, and before I could leave the stuffy and humid torture chamber that is Later Tonight with David Wollgreen, the aforementioned powdered-up, black haired bimbo of a man crossed my path and cut off my only exit.
"Daria!" he said, sounding like Phil Hartman crossed with a ball of grease. "Hey, where's the fire?"
"The writer's room," I said. "Some of the mold caught a spark. I think the air might be toxic." I took the time to think about whether I could keep my job if I slugged him in the jaw (the answer I came up with was less than pleasing).
David just tutted and shook his head. "Now now now, Daria! I hope you're not burning your work or anything. Every joke is gold in these walls!"
Back in High School, I would have said "That explains why you're rich,"then pushed my way to freedom and started up the purging processes for the entire conversation. But in the real world the people I end up interacting with aren't flighty or innocently stupid: they're smart enough to know how to be proper bullies. David would be the ur-example— nobody in the New York writing scene was as keenly aware of their position as employer vis-a-vis their employees than him. He was practically a banker.
So with the thought of unemployment hanging over my head, all I could manage was a pallid, "Don't worry, I leave all my lines at home. Which is why I need to go and get them."
I didn't move towards the door. I knew David wasn't done with me yet.
"Well it's a shame you keep them locked away like that," he said. "I've always wondered what your A-game would be like."
Good enough that you couldn't keep me here, I wanted to say, if only because it would shut him up and not necessarily because I believed it. Alas, all I felt I could get away with was: "The quickest way to my inner Bard is through my check book, David."
He chuckled and finally stepped aside. Again, I knew him well enough to expect a final, smarting shot before I could escape, so when I heard him clear his throat I was prepared to shut my brain off.
"Oh, before you go, we're getting ready to send in some nominations for an Emmy. Any episodes you think could beat Colbert or Oliver?"
Probably the one where I beat you to death with a hockey stick, I thought, and that time I did believe it. "None that I know of," I said.
He smiled, or smirked I suppose— the amount of smarm coming off his face would be enough to offend a pimp. "Well that's too bad," he said. "I guess I'll just have to lock you guys in that room of yours until we're playing in the big leagues again. Well, if there's anything left after you burnt it down, that is."
And then he was off, which told me that he wanted a new chew-toy to bite into. Knowing him, it would probably be some poor intern who hadn't yet realized that the world of show business was less like a dream and more like a Penal Colony. One conversation with David and they'd leave any positivity for the trash collectors—then they'd be just another entertainment lackey with circles under their eyes the size of jowls, complaining in step with the rest of us about how they'd been gypped at some point in the past and would appreciate at least getting their pants back, thank you very much. Well, they'd discuss that with the other staff members—not me obviously, what with my being a leper and all.
I opened the doors and breathed in the musk of a late afternoon in New York City. Freedom has never tasted so bitter and unfulfilling. All I had at that moment was a distraction waiting for me, and yanking out my phone I typed up a quick message telling said distraction that I was on my way. The phone buzzed in my hands a second later—apparently all the luck I'd saved from suffering through High School was used up on a texting plan with light-speed service.
Cool, said the text. Followed by: How ya feeling?
: ), I replied.
And then, a second later: You know, lying is a mortal sin Ms. Morgendorffer
She knew me well, I'll admit that much. Which tended to mutate into a problem when I least wanted it (and as you'll no doubt see in short order). But I let it slide, replying with: Shellfish is the one you have to watch for, and then leaving it at that. Shoving my phone back into my pocket, I looked over my shoulder at the massive poster of David that hung on the studio wall, and despite myself I heard a long, tired sigh escape into the clamour of New York. I felt enough shame at that to completely ignore what was happening in the crosswalk as I stepped off the curb.
Or at least, that's what a police report filed a good two months later would say. In reality, I looked both ways, walked into an empty street, and was accosted by the sound of squealing brakes and an angry car horn. While I was busy exiting my skin, I managed to get a good look at an ugly purple car with tinted windows and gold rims vibrating just a few feet away from me—it occurred to me around then that I hadn't been nearly run down by traffic yet that week, and apparently my ticket had just been called. Yes, New York is a lovely city, let me assure you of that.
Scared as I was, I also just so happened to be completely done with any idiotic nonsense by that point in the day (I know, how unreasonable). Because of that, I didn't move from the crosswalk—I stared into the opaque windshield and crossed my arms.
"Do it," I said out loud. "I dare you." Unfortunately, part of me was seriously daring the driver.
Just my luck though, the car backed up, swerved wide, and tore up chunks of the asphalt as the driver flipped me the bird and sped down the rest of the street. I was unfortunately completely unharmed, meaning that no accident had occurred on David's property and our parent company's insurance would still be able to cover his show. The driver was a coward, I say—and an inconsiderate one at that.
The rest of my walk to the nearest bus station went as fine as it possibly could. But that, Dear Reader, is a typical afternoon in the company of David Wollgreen, as well as my increasingly typical reaction to it. If I accomplished anything with all that, I hope it was that I created some context. That's about all I can hope for, really.
Yes, a paradise indeed. Bet your money on it.
It was Thursday, the Friday taping of the show had ended, and that meant technically speaking, it was the beginning of the weekend for me. I'd realized early on (and I think most adults do as well, eventually) that there's nothing special about weekends, no matter how much your inner child says otherwise. 'Weekend' just means 'Monday is two days away.'
But Thursdays also meant that I was expected down at Harold and Peter's, a quaint little bar in Midtown that passed all it's health inspections with flying colours, so far as I'm aware. When I first moved to New York, the day and the bar was set aside as a weekly meet up to keep life as livable as possible. Failure to attend was punishable by a strongly worded text and a surprise in your apartment that you'd never fully be able to clean. That was never a problem—my Thursday 'board meetings' were always something I looked forward to. But lately I was tempted more and more to just stay home. If I set the context up properly you could probably guess why—what you probably can't guess is how frightening of a concept that was to me.
Anyways, I arrived at Harold and Peter's a few minutes earlier than expected, and I saw my distraction waiting for me outside on her phone. Jane Lane: a master artist who was slumming it through paid commissions to stay afloat, and above all perhaps the only reason why I survived High School (or at least wasn't charged with a capital offense)—we'd moved to New York together, and like a partnership that was bound to lead to nefarious trouble sometime in the future, we'd remained as inseparable as you possible could be in the adult world. She saw me coming and waved me down in as comically over-the-top a fashion as she could possibly manage.
"Hang on Huey," she said. "Daria finally turned up."
"I'm early," I said, "As strange a concept as that is to you Lane's." She smirked at me, I smirked back, all was right in the world. Lifting the phone off her ear, she pressed the button that switches the call to speaker, inviting in the voice of her husband, Huey Haynes.
"Hey Huey," I said. "How's the News?"
I heard him chuckle. "Y'know, found another ancient alien civilization, made contact, figured out the meaning of life. Nothing new. 'Course they wanted us to put them back and burry them good as soon as they got ahold of a newspaper."
"Third one this month," I said.
"Better than the probe-happy one's from last year though, right?" Jane said.
"They saved me a trip to the doctor, so I ain't complaining."
"'Ain't'?" I said. "Half of my degree is in English Huey. That offends me to the core."
"Told ya we should have muzzled him," Jane said.
We smirked and Huey chuckled again. Being that it was the first bit of peace I'd felt all day, I lapped it up like a starved alley cat. As Jane switched the conversation away from speaker, told Huey she loved him and that she'd see him whenever he figured out what flight he was on, then tucked her phone into her bag, I made the conscious decision to switch mine off—for the entire evening, it ended up being. The threat of work interrupting pleasure was too great for me to ignore.
Following that, Jane beckoned me inside the bar, and to the counter we went. Our regular spot was empty, as it usually was, and standing over it was the establishment's lone bartender, deep in thought about song lyrics and guitar cords and no doubt a crowd of groupies or two. Ladies and Gentlemen, meet the great Trent Lane—semi-functioning musician with a gaggle of fans hanging onto his rugged good looks and his voice of shattering glass.
"Hey Daria," he said. "Hey Janey. How's it going?"
"Better than sex!" Jane said, loud enough to get a few people's attention.
"I'm still alive," I said. They both gave me a somewhat perturbed look, but considering how that had been happening fairly frequently over the last little bit, it wasn't hard for me to ignore it. They dropped it when I pulled up my stool anyways.
Clearing his throat after Jane and I were settled, Trent said, "So, whaddya starting with?"
"Two beers, por favor!" Jane said, slapping her palm down on the counter hard enough to yelp when it invariably stung. I couldn't help roll my eyes.
"And a band-aid for this stranger I just met," I said. Good natured as ever, Trent gave us a smirk.
" 'K," he said, and he began to make his way towards the rear of the bar. He would have made it too, if Jane hadn't been in her usual 'mood'.
" 'K?" she said. "You better have been replying to my Spanish with more Spanish there sonny, or else we're about to have a problem.
Trent shrugged. "I was just saying 'ok', you know."
Jane looked positively mortified, in the way only a bad actor could manage. "Why must the youths mangle our beautiful language?" she said as she turned to me. That got another smirk out of me.
"Told you we should have muzzled him," I said. Thus the smirk was returned in full, even by Trent (who mumbled "You guys are weird" as he went to get our beers. You can probably see why I liked going there, speaking of context. Just like you can probably now understand why my need to feel isolated rearing its ugly head again had me as worried and ashamed as it did.
Anyways, after a while we had a shot of mystery liquid and some stray drops of beer spread out around our arms while we were watching the news crawl and finishing the belly-aching that would have made it into my script if I was working with Samantha Bee (or had a penis). I saw a fair amount of paint covering her wrist, enough that anyone with a wrist-fetish would clearly be able to see it, but that was just Jane's style—if the paint was slashing back at her, then she was painting with enough energy to invalidate the need for a gym membership. A stray comment of mine got us talking about violence again.
"Tell me again why you haven't shot up Congress already?" Jane asked me.
Spinning my still-full shot glass around in my fingers, I said, "Because I'd never pass a background check," then decided that I might as well slug the damn thing if I'd already paid for it. Alcohol worked for Hemmingway, after all.
"Sure you would," Jane said, spinning her own glass. "I mean, who hasn't threatened to shoot a Senator every now and then?"
"People who actually plan on doing it?"
"Exactly! You're harmless."
I grunted. "Don't remind me." I stared at my empty glass and debated whether or not I wanted it re-filled. I decided against it— jokes about Hemmingway aside, my fully functioning liver is one of my better qualities.
Knowing Jane as well as I did, I was expecting a follow up to my previous comment (which I was already regretting having said—another new feature of mine, positive or not, though it certainly wasn't one I had to worry about much back in High School). She coughed the kind of cough you can only get through paint fumes, and I took that as my cue to jump in front of her train of thought.
"Are there any movies you want to see tonight?" I said. "If I don't keep up my movie popcorn diet, I might make it to 50, and that'd be terrible."
Jane sighed and pushed away her drink, which told me all I needed to know. "Yeah, and nothing ends the week like laughing at Oscar Bait..."
"But you can't."
She gave me a weak smile. "Sorry Daria. Gotta finish a project, or at least try to." She placed her fist against her skull. "Pretty sure there's a tumour the size of a grapefruit in my head right now. It's making me do crazy things."
Like accepting this job in the first place, was the subtext. I can pick up on that pretty easily, mostly because we never really needed to use subtext when we were kids. Back in High School, Jane and I were fairly open with one another, especially if there was a common point of irritation. Like maybe the football team decided to forgo showering and the rest of us had to sit in class with walking bio-weapons.
But here we were, slowly cascading towards the wrinkled years of our lives, both closer to our dreams than the vast majority of the people on the planet (not to mention of our friends), and yet we both felt cheated. Did we talk about it? Surely not— we both figured that'd be like jabbing a sharpened icicle into a burn wound.
Well, at least I felt that way. Jane tended to think that discussing our problems was the way forward, even if it took her a while to ease into the decision. Like a hot-tub from Hell, she'd yelp her, skin would turn red, but eventually the temperature would level off and she'd be right at home. I on the other hand would rocket out after merely dipping a toe and end up smacking my head against the bathroom tiles, if you're following my metaphor.
Jane had clearly found the water comfortable. She said, "So...speaking of wanton murder..."
"I haven't killed David yet, no," I said, scowling down at my own reflection on the counter. "I'd have mailed you part of him otherwise."
"Aww shucks," she said. "It's good to know you'd get me locked up as an accessory."
"You always said you wanted three square meals a day."
"I also always said that I like having my own shower."
"Fair," I said. I looked at my glass and decided, fine, whatever, I'll fill you up— but I'm gunning for you if I end up vomiting in some condemned bathroom. I waved into the corner of the bar, and Trent—who had either graciously been giving us some space to talk or, more likely, was at it again with the owner—shuffled in our direction. He already had a bottle in his hand, like he was expecting me to wave him over at any second. It was pretty weak liquor, as far as cheap rum goes, but all the same, he made sure Jane and I fit in whenever we came to Harold and Peter's.
"Your cut-off still two?" he said as he poured a soupy brown liquid into my shot glass. I nodded.
"I'm driving," I said. My car was in the parkade under my apartment with half its muffler missing. It had served me well for a whole two months, then the potholes got to it. The poor thing never stood a chance.
"Whadda'bout you Janey?"
Jane looked at her glass, shrugged, and pushed it towards her brother. He carefully filled it with alcoholic goodness, then slid it back over, saying, "And two's definitely your cut-off," like the good brother he was— caught between wanting his sister and her friend to be happy while still having some semblance of dignity.
"Trent," I said. "That's her third."
He blinked at me, then at Jane. "Oh," he said eventually. "Ok, well, now you're cut off."
Jane, however, had pushed her glass to the side and was giving Trent a creepy, wide-eyed smile. "I like you LLoyd. I always liked you. Best goddamn bartender from Timbuktu to Portland, Maine. Mmm, Portland Oregon for that matter."
Trent shivered. "C'mon Janey, that movie gave me nightmares."
I took a sip of my drink. "I watched it when I was five, and look how I turned out."
"Horribly jaded and closed off to the world?" Jane said. I gave her a glare over the rim of my glass.
"You're a gentleman and a scholar, Jane," I said.
Jane slid over her glass, took a swig, then set it back down in what I think was supposed to be her way of telling me she was determined, goddammit, and any snark I threw her way would be deflected as though she'd been manufactured in a wind-tunnel. She said, "Look, you and I both know that the reason we got into art was so we could yell at people in creative ways. Right Trent?"
"My lyrics are a gateway to my inner torment," he said, about three-quarters serious. He hummed to himself. "Hmm, that could work."
"Check online first," I said. "You wouldn't want to get sued by a ten year old." I paused, then scowled at my reflection again. "Sorry Trent, I didn't mean to say that."
"S'ok," he said with that half-loopy grin of his. Then he started humming again. "Lyrics form the path, with ice-cold breath, leading to the gateway, of my ten-year old death." He shook his head. "No, that sounds stupid."
"See?" Jane said, pointing at both of us. "All that rage is bubbling and churning and— " Instead of finishing her sentence, she smashed her hands together and made a noise that sounded like two waves getting into a slap-fight. "—and what do you end up doing instead? You knock Bob Dylan off his groove!"
Trent scowled. "That's more offensive than what she said, Janey."
"You're fine, Big Bro."
I downed what was left of my drink and slammed the glass on the table in such a way that, I hoped, I'd be clearly communicating that I wanted out of this conversation. I knew where it was going, what we'd have to discuss, and the liquor we were being served wasn't nearly strong enough to make it a pleasant experience (or burn a hole in my brain so I'd forget about what was said the moment it left the realm of thought). Being me though, the glass just landed awkwardly on it's side and scuttled towards the edge of the counter with a louder-than-necessary clatter. I groped for it and managed to keep it on the counter, but any impartial observer (of which there were many) would have been justified in thinking I was nine pints to the wind or just recently diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease.
With all eyes now firmly on me, I said, "Jane, do you really want to have this conversation?"
She was silent for a while, shifting her eyes between Trent, myself, and her own reflection. Then she said, "No, but we should."
She balled up her fist and put it next to my head.
"I don't have a tumour," I said.
"But you want to have a tumour. Or at least, that's the way you're acting."
"No," I said, "I'm acting like I don't want to be the reincarnation of Pollyanna after she finds out Santa Claus isn't real."
Jane quirked her brow. "Wait, so...that's what this is about? You're keeping it all inside because you're afraid people will think you were born with rose-coloured glasses?"
"Sure," I said. For some reason, my finger was dancing along the inside of my glass. I heard Trent lightly cough behind his sleeve. "Speaking of tumours," I added.
Jane chimed in with one of her own. "Wow," I said, "you two are paradigms of health, aren't you?"
I saw Jane level a scowl my way. "Don't change the subject missy."
"Yeah," said Trent. "That wasn't a very sincere 'sure'. More like a...'yeah, sure officer, we'll obey any noise bylaws'."
"Thanks Trent," Jane said.
"Just tryin' to help."
If I was hell-bent on being a jerk, I could have exited this conversation as quickly as I desperately wanted to. But I'd be miserable for far longer (and with far more malice) if I started snipping at the Lane's, almost in the kind of way you'd see on an overly melodramatic sitcom. Unlike burning your hand on a stove to get rid of a sharp headache, misery of one kind doesn't cancel out misery of another— the pile on top of one another like a winter crash on the interstate and leave you with a feeling of solid lead in your stomach. At least if you possess some modicum of empathy, which I guess is one thing I have going for myself. But I digress.
I said, "If I'm not being sincere with you guys, maybe that says something."
"That you're hiding something?" Trent said innocently. Being that one Lane picked up on my subtext and the other one didn't, it was Trent's turn to face down a Jane Lane glare.
He blinked. "What?"
Good work Morgendorffer, I said to myself. You're as effective as the UN during an African Genocide... Pushing that aside for a second, I turned to the Lane's and said, "What I'm saying is that whatever I want to talk about, it'll do more harm coming out than it will staying inside."
"Words aren't vomit, Daria," Trent said. True to bartender form, he was polishing a glass now. Now all I needed was a black and white filter and I'd be ready to sing my sad song.
Jane was less impressed, taking a deep breath of air and then shifting her weight onto her elbow. "Kids got a point," she said.
I frowned. "Me or him?"
"Whichever one of you just said 'this conversation is a total crock'. Unless that was me."
"It was," I said.
"Go figure," she said. She pushed back from the bar and spread her hands out over the counter, like she was about to deliver a sermon. "Back in our Golden Years, if there was something bugging us we only internalized it when we were embarrassed for thinking it. We're older and less patient now, so spill the damn beans already."
I sighed. After a certain point, I think you give up any pretense that talking about your problems will solve them, and just do it because people expect you to be an adult and actually air any complaints. Mostly you do this to shut them up, but with Jane I acquiesced because, truthfully, she was getting more irritated by my silence than by my words. I'm self-aware enough to know that was defeating the whole point of me keeping my lips glued together. Poor Trent— sometimes I wonder if he tended bar just so he could help us through our rough spots instead of alcohol, like how every other adult in this world operates.
But part of me still wanted to be allusive— not quite lying through my teeth, but also staying clear of the meat of my feelings. So I said, "Back in our Golden Years we couldn't imagine doing anything other than writing, drawing, or playing guitar too."
I saw them blink. "You don't anymore?" Trent asked.
Jane seemed to be one step ahead of him. "Don't answer back with 'you do?' or something like that—give us a straight answer if you're gonna firebomb us."
I sighed again. "Alright, but let me ask you another question then. Do you actually think we're writing and drawing and playing guitar, or do we just tell ourselves that's what's we're doing because we're too afraid to admit that we followed our dreams and ended up in a banal limbo?" I half expected some kind of crack about me getting metaphysical on them, but neither Jane nor Trent spit something like that out. I think they understood perfectly well what I had asked, which didn't make me feel any better.
But they understood me, which was more than enough evidence, in my view, that the best course of action was to stop my own train of thought and just leave it there. Leaving things unsaid— like how I was doubting my own creative abilities the more David ignored my lines, how I felt completely compressed in this life of mine, or how looking back to when I was 18 and remembering my excitement over the possibility of breaking free and being my own person and having unlimited access to expressing myself after High School, and how all of that had come crashing down after I'd just stopped trying to sell short stories and begrudgingly joined a C-list talk show writing staff...how that in particular made me more depressed than I had ever been— if that just festered beneath the surface, then I wouldn't have to make Jane and Trent think too much about it, or get depressed about it, or anything approaching the kind of thinking that had me labeled as 'The Misery Chick' during my first year in Lawndale.
I hated pity parties, but I hated dragging down other people's moods even more— at least when those people didn't deserve to feel crummy, anyways. Jane and Trent deserved it least of all— they were just trying to get me to open up for my own good, but now I probably had them feeling guilty for it. Most of Trent's income came from Harold and Peter's, and the damn bar ate up most of his time too. Jane had money, but it all came from commissioned pieces— nothing personal, nothing that she thought really expressed, as she said, her creatively yelling at people. But neither of them worked for David, and I'd let slip enough sordid tidbits for them to threaten to contact my union for me. As always, we were in the hole together, but I think they felt lucky to avoid the kind of toxic work environment that people like Ricky Gervais and Mike Judge had been lampooning for years. And that just made them feel all the more guilty if we tried to talk about anything.
What does that say about me and my own feelings on the matter? Good question— I really didn't like to think about it.
So I put down a fist-full of cash and got out of my seat, walking towards the door. I saw Jane was still staring at the counter, but quickly snap her eyes in my direction as I got up to leave. "Hey!" she said. "Wait..."
I stopped and turned around. She said, "Need a ride?"
I shook my head, and tried to keep my face neutral. "I've got it covered. Thanks though." I paused, refusing to end the evening like this. "Maybe I'll stop by SoHo on Saturday?"
Jane smiled, as did Trent, which made me feel a little better. Jane said, "Sure thing. Trent'll be there all tomorrow and all weekend, so it'll be a regular Lawndale reunion."
"Gotta have a quiet space to get my lyrics right," he said. I saw something in his eye that I'd discovered a ling time ago: despite his appearance, despite his mannerisms, here was one of the rare people outside of Jane and Jodie who was perfectly in-tune with how different the world he lived in was from the world he imagined, and how exactly that made him feel. I think he— and Jane too— had already started picking up on all the sickly thoughts we liked to keep hidden just to stay functional, despite my best intentions.
I said, "Right," and smiled back. "See you guys later." And don't think too hard about what I said, please...
I stepped back into the New York air, and sighed for the third time in probably as many minutes. There was a time when I'd beg and pray that everyone turned a spotlight onto their own thoughts and actually tried to confront them. Too many gross examples of injustice had spawned from a willful ignorance of your own contradictions and biases and prejudices, so trying to be aware of why you were unhappy seemed to me to be the best way to improve life as far as the noose would allow.
But I guess that's the other thing about being an adult— if willful ignorance gets you through the day, then why fiddle with the foundations? You'll just end up pulling a wall down on yourself.
God, I thought. No wonder DeMartino was a walking stroke victim...
The walk back to my apartment was eventful in the pedestrian-unfriendly way that only New York seems to manage. If I came home every evening and found a "run me down like wounded dog" sign stapled to the back of my jacket, I think that would explain a significant amount about how I can't seem to use a cross-walk without watching my life flash before my eyes. I'm also pretty sure I saw a fairly famous comic book writer and artist by the name of Fred Michaels out and about that day too, which I'm not exactly bragging about— more reporting it, really A few of my neighbors have said that they'll run into him from time to time, and he's cordial right up to the point where you say something about liberals or Muslims. Then he'll claw your eyes out using the power of purple prose. I suppose that's another sign of being a writer— bearing witness to how crazy our lot is and just answering it with a big "meh".
But, being that the walk was busy and all, it kept my mind off the conversation with Jane and Trent, which was a blessing as far as I was concerned. I felt I had escaped any deep digging into our personal problems, but only barely. Part of me expected to rely on Jane a hell of a lot less once I got to adult hood, but dammit it was hard not to fall back on the only other human being who seemed to get me (and Trent, depending on his level of wakefulness— side note: is that what woke means? It'd better not be or I swear to God—). It wasn't fair to her— she had a husband now, and those were enough trouble as is.
So when I got to my apartment I was more than ready to just sink back into my usual routine of slothfulness followed by panicked preparation for the next round of scripts. I opened my door, slipped off my shoes, and immediately welcomed the lack of cat pee squishing beneath my feet with an audible sigh of relief. Small victories: potty training my dearly beloved black cat named Godzilla was, at that point, the highlight of my professional career. I coed in the direction of his bed—which was propped up on a stack of empty cabinets— and got a lazy wave of the paw in response.
"Good boy," I said. "Show the vet she doesn't know what she's talking about—cat's don't need to move."
My apartment is modest, which is fine by me. Too much empty space would just create echoes, or entice me to spend money I don't have on things I don't need just to entertain guests I'll never have. It has a couch, a TV, a work-desk, a kitchen and it's assorted offspring, and a toilet if it's too cold to just go out the window. A writer's paradise to be sure (that's not meant to be sarcastic).
My workstation is somewhat of a mess, though— in much the same way that Bay of Pigs Invasion was somewhat of a boondoggle. There's family pictures propped up on old frames (because you'll be visited by nasty spirits of you don't let your relatives watch over you with beady eyes and frozen, fake smiles...yes, photographs creep me out), but the rest is paperwork. Scripts, script fragments, notes on scripts that needed to be burnt in a trashcan, scripts that doubled as suicide notes (kidding)...there was also a mishmash of Jane's collected artwork and short stories I had unearthed from their brown folders. I liked Jane's artwork, even if the rest of New York didn't. The pieces were varied in style, much like the artist, but one consistent element was her accentuating the features of the faces of any people she included in her work. Sometimes you could tell just by looking at her people what conversation they were having, which made it all the more personal when you knew the backstory of each piece like I did.
None of the short stories on my desk were recent ones. After the last round of rejections coupled with my first taste of David's white dwarf of a star, I'd given up on writing fiction. I tried to edit a few of my older stories, but eventually I'd just give up and shove them back where I found them. I used to tell people that reality was stranger than any fiction I could come up with, but that was bull****—Jane and Jodie and Tom (poor old Tom) told me I was gunning for Kafka's old seat at the writers table. The truth was, I just hated looking at my work.
So, sitting down at my desk, I pushed that to one side and opened up my laptop. The poor machine runs constantly in my apartment, because if I'm not working on a script with the other writers then I'm working on a script at home, as though letting writing subsume my entire life would make me enjoy it again. The lights winked on just as Godzilla meandered his way down from his bed and came to a rest just beside my feet —eventually he'd make his way onto my lap, so long as he didn't hear any loud clacking from my keyboard (and he so rarely did—not until I forced myself to put something on the page despite knowing it'd never be said on air).
There was a notification of a Skype message I had missed dancing just at the edge of my tool bar, and naturally the icon led my attention that way with a gentle hand. Clicking on it, I saw that the message had been from Mom and Dad. 15 years ago, something like that would have made my heart-rate increase a tad, what with Dad's predilection for putting his cardiologist's kids through college. One of the few things that reality copied whole-sale from a writing assignment I did (read: was forced into doing) back in High School was a much more laid-back father with more bionic arteries than meat ones. It'd have to be like that— the other option was having a heart attack so massive that it killed one of his grandchildren as well.
So I calmly called my parents back, wavering back and forth between being grateful for another distraction and wishing I could just get the night's minimal work over and done with. Much like an alcoholic would curse their loud neighbors for driving them to drink, I suppose.
That annoying Skype sound filled my apartment for a few seconds— long enough for Godzilla to finally decide that he wanted on my lap— and then my Mother's face appeared on the screen. She was a little more heavy-set than in her prime, but her hair was still Technicolor and, above all, no longer looked like she was a week away from being institutionalized. There are times where I wonder how she didn't kill Dad, if only because his neck was usually within grabbing distance.
No, retirement had done both my parents a great deal of good. Which is probably why the usual Daria trilemma hounded me like my detergent was bacon flavoured: be happy that someone else was happy, be sad that I wasn't, and then feel guilty for feeling sad. Usually the whole trilemma was topped off with self-flagellation over my iron-clad moral code letting that bit or irrational nonsense slip through, which created a perfect box of just general emotional turmoil. If someone came around and filled it with water I'd probably have been very happy.
Anyways, my Mother seemed happy to see me. I put on my most presentable face in turn, and by that I mean I made sure my lips were a straight line instead of my usual scowl.
"Hello sweetie!" Mom said.
"Hey Mom," I said. "I saw that you called. Dad didn't get you guys marooned again, did he?"
"No no," Mom said, laughing a little. She pulled back from the screen, showing me the inside of my old house. "We're still in town. Just getting the last few things we need packed and ready for our flight!"
I heard my Dad stumble through the kitchen, yelping as he smashed his knee on something (some things never change), and then slide beside Mom. He waved into the camera. "Heyya kiddo! Can you believe it? In three days we're going to have been on every continent on the planet!"
"Except Antarctica, honey."
"Oh...right...well all the continents that matter!"
"You just insulted a gaggle of penguins and one pissed off alien, Dad," I said. I saw Mom smile a bit— Dad remained calm without looking vacant. So that was good. What wasn't good was the question I knew my Mother would be asking shortly.
"Are you sure we can't convince you to come with us honey?" she said. Dad nodded in affirmation just over her shoulder.
"Sorry Mom, Dad," I said. "But there's something about Australia's spider population that turns me off from the idea."
"Oh don't worry kiddo!" Dad piped up. He rummaged around in a fanny-pack that, in almost every Skype conversation the three of us ever had, was firmly wrapped around his waist. Mom joked once that he kept a set of spare arteries in there. But instead of silicon tubing, he yanked out what had to have been the world's largest aerosol can. A bright yellow label with a picture of a choking spider assaulted my eyes and Mom's camera from all angles. Dad said, proudly, "We're prepared! More than prepared! No spider is going to gnaw off my daughter's face!"
"Jake..." Mom said, giving him a look. I just shrugged my shoulders.
"All the same," I said, "I have a lot of work to catch up on." I paused. "Thanks for the offer though."
They both frowned, but Dad recovered quickly— deciding to inspect all the pertinent information tattooed onto the aerosol can. Mom's frown was static, because Mom had a hunch that I was lying through my teeth. That was why she'd asked me in the first place.
Whenever we end up touching base, they're either out on a cruise (or in the process of getting to a port for a cruise) or counting down the days until they head out for one or more cruises. I don't blame them— they have enough money saved over from both of their nightmare jobs to live comfortably with waiters and hotel managers, but above all I think they felt trapped in Lawndale. Getting their sea-legs (as Dad always said) was a little act of rebellion in their Golden Years, and a hell of a freeing one at that.
They almost never asked Quinn to come with them, but they almost always asked me. And that was because they thought it would be good for me. The moment they realized Lawndale had stuck them in a straightjacket no doubt lead them to an epiphany that I too felt constricted all throughout...well...life, really— so if they were enjoying themselves, maybe I would too, right?
Well, that was a big reason why I always said no. Because chances are that the old sailor myth of women being bad omens for a ship would come back in force if I started sailing with my parents, though it would probably be updated to just women with square glasses and a constantly sour disposition. These are enlightened times, after all. No, my parents deserved to live the good life, whatever that is— I wasn't going to ruin their escape. They'd once nearly divorced over my ongoing disagreement with other human beings and the world they inhabited, after all.
But there was other reason why I always said no—one that was a lot more personal, one that I didn't particularly like to think about myself. In truth, I was terrified that I'd get a taste of this freedom they enjoyed so much, and realize that staying in the writing world would forever keep me away from it. This thing I had spent most of my waking life imagining myself in, this one thing that had kept me going through the cliques and the stress and everything else that made me as jaded as I was, might not make me happy— might even, in fact, be making me more miserable than I had ever thought possible— and I'd have to abandon it in order to actually feel...authentic might be the word, I guess, though Sartre and de Beauvoir will probably have me murdered from the Great Beyond for using it. I remembered how I felt when Quinn was mistaken for a "brain". I remembered what happened when I'd tossed aside my glasses for exactly two whole days. I didn't relish feeling like that again, except I also knew that about 20 years of hope was running behind me this time. I'd hurt a hell of a lot more.
So was I lying through my teeth? Mostly— just on the surface, my excuse of being swamped by work was honest enough. The problem was that it really only was just bobbing along on the surface.
Well, that sob-story is over. Back with my parents and our Skype conversation, Mom was still frowning and Dad had put away his monster aerosol can. Mom said, "That's too bad, but we understand sweetie. How is work going anyways?"
Like a well-oiled dumpster fire, I thought. "So long as America worships the grossly overpaid, I'll be able to afford my drug addiction."
Dad snorted behind my mother, like he'd just watch someone take a bowl of custard to the face. "Drugs! Good one Daria!"
"Your father's your number one fan," Mom said, rolling her eyes a tad. I was tempted to join her, though Dad would have been able to see, and that wasn't fair.
"Thanks a ton, Dad," I said instead.
Then I saw Mom shift a bit in her seat, like something had bitten her but she thought that it was rude to tell anyone. Contra most of what I had seen during the conversation, I didn't think this was going to be followed by the usual ho-hum news.
"While we have you on the phone..." Mom started. Dad picked that moment to stop guffawing.
Let me guess, I thought, the Archduke has been assassinated...
Before Mom could elaborate further, Dad decided to jump in. "Now don't think we called you for this reason! We didn't just call you for this reason!
I noticed that Mom hadn't asked him to calm down, which meant this was likely one of those rare moments where both my parents are flustered. A Flustery Day in the Hundred Acre Wood, Jane used to say, before I'd smack her in the arm.
So I was curious now, to say the least. "What's doing on?" I said.
"It's not a tumour!" Dad blurted out. I don't know what was with everyone and tumours that day, but at least there was a consistent theme. Mom elbowed him gently in the gut though, dragging the conversation kicking and screaming back into reality.
She said, "We just wanted to let you know that Quinn is going to be in New York over the weekend...
"And she wondered if you'd be up for a small get together tomorrow. She's bringing the triplets..."
I bit back the initial thought of That's why she wants to meet up as quick as I could. The jaded mind says things like that if you let it off it's leash, even though the truth was that Quinn and I— and Timmy, Tommy, and Teddy— all got along pretty well (horrid memories of the Three J's and how their very essence seemed to have recurred 20 years later not withstanding). Still, I could tell Mom and Dad were afraid of me having the thought that I just so happened to be having. I wasn't exactly helping, what with my face being locked in eternal irritation and everything.
"Why is she in town?" I said. I hoped my voice sounded a little gentler than it was in my head. I quickly deduced from my Mother's face that no, it was not.
"Well..." she said, "You know how it is with Quinn, the busy-body that she is."
"Yeah!" said Dad. "She's...you know..."
"Enjoying the fruits of her 'S'mores and Pores' labour?"
Mom shifted in her seat againÃ¢â‚¬â€ Dad just left the screen all together. It was more than enough evidence to tell me that I was right.
I didn't want the details, about which media company she was talking to or which morning show had invited her on (she was a favorite of Good Morning America, and once Fox & Friends called on her to make one of her famous 'desserts you can eat while you perm' plates, but her mother and her sister had convinced her to stay away from Rupert Murdoch, surprise surprise)—at that moment all I really cared about was wanting to not be angry over my sisters good fortune. If I knew the details— and I was sure to figure them out at some point the next day, so why rush thingsÃ¢â‚¬â€ I'd probably perform my greatest imitation of pre-heart surgery Jake Morgendorffer yet. I could see my parents already felt guilty enough for bringing it up, so sparing them from having their guilt vindicated would make sure the Skype call could end positively. Or at least I hoped so.
"She had to leave pretty quickly sweetie," Mom said. "Something about getting the message three days late. But she asked us to ask you if the five of you could get together while she's in town." She paused. "She really wants to see you, Daria."
I let out a sigh. "I know," I said. And I did know that—we'd had our spats in the past, but things were a lot different now. So long as work was never brought up, she was actually someone I dared to consider a friend. But work would have to be brought up, that was the problem. Mom could sense this too.
"If you're...too busy, sweetie," she said, "I'm sure Quinn will understand."
Another sigh from me. This entire weekend was absolutely convinced that it needed to be a freak-show parade dedicated to my own misery, the kind that anyone cursed with a functioning brain would realize came with a sing-song reminder that I should be perfectly happy where I was, that it was everything I'd ever wanted. Sure Quinn was more successful than I was, and my parents had survived through hell at home and work only to come out with genuine smiles permanently residing on their faces, and all that contrasted with my general attitude like a wolverine in a wedding dress, but that was my fault, wasn't it? Jane and Trent where in the exact same situation as me— trapped and disappointed— but didn't it seem like they handled the whole thing a hell of a lot better than me? What does that say about my choices in life? Well for starters, it says that Dostoyevsky was right— too much consciousness is a sickness...
I heard Mom lightly cough, pulling my attention away from my inner dialogue and back to the Skype conversation. I shook my head, trying clear the fog that had settle in during my personal sÃƒÂ©ance. Whatever questions I had unearthed were going to stay buried for the night, if for no other reason than I had piles and piles of them lined up around the inside of my mind from similar little pity parties. I'd made my decisionÃ¢â‚¬â€ my sister wanted to see me, so I'd see her. I'd be the first jackass visible from space if I said otherwise.
"It's alright Mom. If I get a head-start on my work I shouldn't have anything on the go tomorrow. We can spend the afternoon together, or however much time she has free."
I saw Mom smiled as though I'd finally found Jesus, though she tapered off her initial enthusiasm immediately afterwards. She had learned from past experience, after all. "I'm sure she'd really appreciate that Daria. And the triplets will be thrilled to see you again!"
"I'll make sure I bring enough change for ice cream then," I said, forcing a smirk onto my face. It felt like I had put on a shirt made out of steel wool. "Otherwise I might stop being their favorite Aunt."
A little more random chit-chat followed, where I tried my best to remain engaged. I hated desperately wanting the call to end, but that's what I felt all the same. I had the excuse of my work to fall back on, but I was very aware of how I'd begun to regret calling them back. Daughter of the Year, thy name is certainly not Daria.
"I'll send Quinn an email," I said eventually, closing out the conversation. "I'll let her know to meet me at Glass Café, and she can let me know what her schedule is like."
"Thank you, Daria," Mom said. The tone she used made me think that I'd just volunteered to donate a kidney. Returning from his self-imposed exile, Dad peaked his head over Mom's shoulder and gave me a massive, toothy grin.
"Yeah thanks kiddo!" he said. "Say hi to your sister for us!"
"And say hi to the man-eating kola's," I said. Mom smiled and ended the call before I could see Dad's reaction, which is unfortunate— I think I'd caught him off guard that time.
But that left me alone in my apartment again, surrounded by a bunch of scripts I'd rather burn in a bonfire and with a bomber squadron of thoughts circling around my head.
I remembered something Jane had jokingly said back in our Lawndale days, when Quinn was going through a "spiritual" phase. She said I was afraid that something really was governing the universe like a Monarch, and that It saw fit to privilege the Quinn's of the world over the Daria's. I thought it seemed like I was taking that idea a lot more seriously now-a-days than I had in the past. But then I also told myself to shut up, I wasn't in the mood for that kind of thinking tonight. Not when I had scripts to defile.
I couldn't let myself get to work without lamenting a bit more, however.
"I was born in a rut, I live in a rut, and I'll die in a rut too." I looked down at my lap, at the fluffy and trustworthy ball of fur that was Godzilla. "What do you think?"
Godzilla bolted from my lap and disappeared into the depths of my apartment. I sighed.
"Good answer little one," I said.
Glass Café sits in a part of Hell's Kitchen that never fails to make me wonder how I can manage my rent month in and month out. It has a frankly phenomenal view of both Midtown's gallery of skyscrapers and an wide-open green space, the kind that painters more pretentious than Jane would frequently flock to for that desperate taste of artistic inspiration. On your way into the café— if you crane your neck in the right direction— you can get a relatively clear view of the Hudson River as well, though I suppose that's not all that special as I'm one of a scarce number of people in the city that actually likes the look of a port. The industrial cranes remind me of Blade Runner, and that makes me happy for some reason.
The café itself is decorated and laid-out like any other café you might walk into: a Parisian aesthetic, if Paris was just Seattle with baguettes lying everywhere. I go there every now and again to get myself out of the house and do some reading— I neither buy the over-priced coffee nor partake in any type of writing, long hand or otherwise. The latter is a rule as iron-clad as the Eiffel Tower for me, because as far as I'm concerned, any writer caught writing in a public café ought to be arrested for indecent exposure.
Anyways, on the Friday I met up with Quinn I walked over to the café about an hour earlier than I needed to. The plan was that she and the triplets would cruise across town in a taxi after checking in at their hotel, then the five of us would spend the afternoon together. Quinn had to be back in the hotel before dinner, but she floated the idea of lunch at my apartment over the phone, since she hadn't gotten a chance to see it yet (I'd only been in New York for seven years, and three of those years were spent on Jane's couch). That depended on a few things:
1) Had she caffeinated the kids?
2) Were the kids controllable when caffeinated?
Teddy was more mature for his age than any six year old needed to be (not that I'm complaining), but so far as I knew, poor Godzilla would end up sailing through a window if a drop of coffee brushed either Tommy or Timmy's lips. Otherwise I told her it was fine with me— I'd even put in a telescope so the kids and I could watch the serial killer across the street. She thought that was funny until she realized Tommy was in the room, looking a bit more excited than any six year old should when murder is brought up (that I am complaining about).
So there I was, sitting in the café by myself with a half-empty bottle of water, one I had brought from home just to piss the baristas off. I was reading A Canticle for Lebowitz— a feel-good story about nuclear war and the cyclical nature of history. I suppose that makes it somewhat apropos, but I argue that any such perceived notion was completely accidental. I just didn't want to keep reading Bluebeard that day— it was making me sad.
The book seemed to be bothering the person sitting next to me, in the sort of way that English royalty might be bothered by a peasant breathing in the same air as them during a trip into the commons. He had his shiny laptop open and a stack of books forming a wall around him, all of them an open proclamation on what is and isn't proper literature, tutt-tutt. Science Fiction was out— only realistic stories about English professors porking their students would be allowed anywhere near him. He was doing more staring than typing. A confrontation was brewing. Unfortunately I had no ammunition— I couldn't counter a snob by saying I wrote for TV, especially when the TV I wrote for made me want to either cry or commit capital murder. He'd have me beat the moment I muttered 'David Wollgreen.'
Luckily for me, I saw a woman with long red hair and three hyperactive kids pass by the window. I could disengage with the local genius of mushroom that grows in every American café and focus instead on putting up as normal a façade as I could manage, maybe hold down any physical hints that I really didn't want to be there under threat of death. It was, I thought, for my own benefit as well— if I didn't provoke a discussion about why she was in town, then no discussion about why she was in town would be had. She always took care to tread lightly around the topic of our professional lives, and her earlier talk with me on the phone was no different.
The chime above the door sounded, and in came the voice of three loudly chattering children and a mother who, against all conceivable odds, sounded exceedingly calm. I smiled.
"Over here!" I said, as boisterously as I could. I turned to the armchair-writer next to me. "That's my sister and nephews. Hard to believe, actually— they're almost never this calm."
He packed up his things like an asteroid was heading for the café. That got me to smile. As I said before, small victories are everything in this day and age. The smile served me well, as when Quinn got closer I saw a discrete look of apprehension fade away into one of relief. That only made me feel guilty for realizing how nervous Quinn was about this meeting. Yes: 'small victories' really does mean 'small' for me.
"Hi Daria!" Quinn said as she reached my table. "It's so good to— " she turned her attention to the kids who were running around her legs and swatting at each other. "— alright guys, we're in a crowded place now so let's just stay in our personal bubbles, ok?"
The kids stopped moving the moment she finished her sentence, and settled into the sort of power-saving mode that younglings have access to until they're teenagers. It was impressive actually— you would get a very powerful sense that she enjoyed being with her kids and vice versa, which isn't something that a lot of families get to claim. Even some of the patrons looked like they'd gotten that impression, though most of them were probably just happy that nobody had started a food fight. The more I write about the place, the more I wonder why I bother going there.
I stood up and debated whether I should give Quinn a hug or not. Quinn seemed to be doing the same: do I ask? is it weird? what if she thinks I'm just trying to act sweet to make her feel better? oh god will she think that I'm thinking these things if I don't? Etc. The Morgendorffer mind is not a pleasant place to be for people who don't like vertigo.
So I decided to do what I figured was the best of all possible options and offered her my water bottle. "Hey sis. Want some water? Minimal backwash, I swear."
A chorus of "Ewww's" leapt forth from the triplet peanut gallery, which got a smile out of the both of us. I looked down at them and raised a brow quizzically. "Have you three been making her life miserable?"
Timmy and Tommy shook their heads with the kind of vigour you'd expect from a Nun if she was asked to star in an adult film. "Well, then what use are you guys for my nefarious plans?" I said, still smiling.
"We're trying to catch'er off guard!" said Teddy, giving me a sly look. "She'll never see us coming!"
"Ah, good plan Theodore." I gave him one of my patented smirks. "Though maybe you should have told me that in private."
He recoiled and darted his eyes between myself and Quinn, acting as though he'd just outed himself as a spy to a White House staffer. That got a good laugh out of Quinn and I, though I was quick to make sure I didn't dampen his enthusiasm.
"Don't worry Teddy," I said, bending down to poke him lightly in the belly. "Just find yourself a quiet pair of shoes, maybe a big stick. You'll have her quaking in fear in no time."
Timmy appeared next to his brother, looking very excited. "Can the stick have a nail in it?"
"Only if you want to sell all your toys to pay for my hospital bed," Quinn said. The excitement drained out of their collective faces faster than a broken bath tub.
Good one sis,I thought to myself. The little bit of wit she had shown when we were in High School had certainly blossomed over the years, to the point where our conversations were closer to the kind Jane and I had and less like the old brain-stoppers, the ones where I'd end up being thankful for the heavy padding on my walls. As I returned to my full height though, an awkward silence fell over us. The clamour of the café seemed muted too, probably because people were now glaring daggers at us for disrupting their precious peace and quiet.
"How was the trip?" I asked, hoping to break the silence quickly.
"Oh, you know, airports are terrible and all the recycled air kills your skin. But," she placed a hand on Timmy's shoulder and smiled, "these little guys were good, so nobody hates us for ruining their nap."
"You're over-preforming," I said to them. "Kids your age should be making your parents go prematurely grey."
"Mommy would just use more of that dye," Teddy said proudly. That got a less than pleased look out of Quinn, one I couldn't help but take a bit of satisfaction from.
"There's the big stick I was talking about," I said. It hit me a second later that you could probably mistake that as a sexual innuendo, but only if you were eavesdropping on just this one part of our conversation, as opposed to actually being an active part of it. Fortunately for us, the café was filled with eavesdroppers who were under no circumstances an active part of the conversation.
"You people are sick," I hipster muttered to me left. All five of us stared into his soul until it wept.
Turning back to me, Quinn said, "So, do you mind if we see your apartment? I brought some sandwiches with me if you're hungry."
Hell yes, I thought to myself, becoming increasingly aware that I hated everyone in that stupid café. It overrode my unease at the prospect of talking to my more successful, possibly happier sister. Her possible euphoria compared to my own melancholy didn't even register until I saw how her and the kids seemed filled with genuine smiles, enough to send a few over my way. Of course then the fact that I made such a comparison in the first place started off another wave of guilt, by which point I was back to wondering if I shouldn't have just told Quinn and my parents that I was busy.
I said "Sure" anyways, though. Quinn and the kids smiled. During this smileathon, little Tommy tugged on Quinn's sleeve and decided to speak in a very loud voice.
"Can we get some coffee before we go?"
Someone in the back of the café screamed out "God no!" That earned whoever it was a nasty raspberry from all three kids, a three-pronged spittle attack that coated the nearest table like it was a SeaWorld bleacher. I'd have joined in, I think, if my mind wasn't extremely preoccupied.
No point in going back, I thought, as we left the café and its cavalcade of pretentious fartknockers. Just focus on the good time we were having not talking about careers and personal fulfillment and this will be a lovely afternoon, right? Of course, that was all I had to do.
I mean, why would I say anything that would invariably offend my caring sister?
We left the café together and walked the short distance to my apartment. This time I know I saw Fred Michaels out on the street, mostly because he announced himself as such with the gusto of an apocalyptic street preacher. Whoever was on the receiving end of his tirade looked like they'd just gotten their hand caught in a bear-trap.
"What's his problem?" Quinn asked.
"Most people that aren't him," I said. We writers are a fickle bunch, sometimes to the extent of being borderline unstable. I don't know if Mr. Miller is that far gone, personally, but all the same, he served as a great reminder of how far too few of us are ever really happy, even if we're successful or doing what we love to do. The neurosis is just too strong.
Godzilla greeted us at the door, and the moment he realized that the large body of people behind me was not Jane and three smaller clones of Jane, he bolted for the darkness of my bedroom. The triplets took off after him like race dogs.
"Is...is it alright if they go in there?" Quinn said.
"Don't worry," I said, setting down my jacket and offering to take Quinn's as well. "I put all my sex toys in my office."
"Oh God Daria!" She started walking towards the kitchen area rather quickly.
I smirked. "Soap's under the sink!"
Godzilla came bounding out of my room with the triplets just behind him. When he reached my feet I quickly plucked him from the jaws of peril and started stroking behind his ears. A cat that's used to 20 hours of silence a day can only handle so much, after all.
"Alright kids," I said, as the triplets formed around me. "The old man is played out. How about you watch some TV until lunch is ready?"
"We already ate!" Tommy said. I stole a glance at Quinn, who was very obviously pretending not to have heard him.
"In that case," I said, keeping as much skepticism out of my voice as possible, "feel free to watch as much TV as you want. My treatÃ¢â‚¬â€ I'll pick up the tab for your rotten brains with your Mother." I set down the besieged Godzilla and saw him disappear back into my bedroom in the periphery of my vision.
Tommy and Timmy, meanwhile, upper-cutted the air and scampered off to the small alcove where I keep my TV. I half expected to hear Sick, Sad World start blaring through my apartment, but to my surprise the two seemed to have settled on The Magic School Bus. A fine compromise: not quite as educational as the Weather Network, but they'd also see a limited number of conspiracy theories this way (SSW had gone down hill fast after NewsCorp bought them).
Teddy had turned to follow them at break-neck speed, but hit the manual override and came to a stop just a few feet from where he started. "Hey Aunt Daria," he said, looking up at me. "Can I borrow a book? I finished the one I was reading already."
Another smile from me, which was very much welcome at that point. I'm partial to the youth of America sticking their heads into fictional reality and ignoring the one outside their window— it's what got me through life, more or less. So I said, "Sure thing Teddy. Any preference?"
"A funny one!"
"Gotcha. One order of humour, coming right up." I stepped past him, unlocked the door to my office, and traced my finger over the spines of my novel collection that also acted as the sole source of colour in the room. If I recalled correctly, the last book he told me he read was Matilda, so another Dahl book would be too much of the same spice at too soon an interval.
My hand landed on The Graveyard Book, which was both funny enough to entertain him and challenging enough to keep up his high level of reading. And nobody got devoured through a vagina in this Gaiman book, so that was a plus.
"Here you go Teddy," I said to him, after re-locking my office and rejoining him back in the main portion of my apartment. "It's got everything a growing boy needs: fantasy, humour, and murder."
Teddy took the book from my hands like a jewel thief might take a diamond. A grin grew to the size of Manhattan on his dimpled little face. When he opened his mouth to say something, his brothers picked that moment to interrupt him, using the age-old psychic hot-line that all siblings have unlimited access to.
"C'mon! The show's starting!"
"Jus' a second!" he said, still staring at the book. He tore his eyes away from the cover and turned them on me. "Thanks Auntie Daria!" he said. Then his arms were around my leg in as much of a bear hug as a six year old can manage.
"Mmm, human emotion," I said, patting his head. "Your people have yet to teach me it fully." Though it was a nice feeling all the same, to be hugged by someone who actually thought of you in a kinder light than the one you constantly trained on yourself. The simple innocence of a child just going straight for affection is something the adult world really misses out on, and that's not something I ever thought I'd say, believe me.
He ran off to join his brothers, while I went off to join my own sibling. She had unpacked most of the lunch supplies from her bag onto the table, which I saw consisted of two sandwiches packed with all of the main food groups and a side order of chips filling in for the fifth. I grabbed two glasses from my cupboard and was then told by the fridge that my two options were water or Ultra Cola. I held them up for Quinn to see— she picked the water, which left me free to consume all the awareness-invigorating goodness that comes with a caffeinated beverage.
"I gave Teddy my copy of The Graveyard Book," I said, setting down the glasses and pouring us both our drinks. "I hope that's alright with you."
"What's in it?"
"Less frightful imagery than Coraline, slightly more than Harry Potter."
"Is he going to get nightmares?"
I took my seat and passed Quinn her glass of water. "I doubt it," I said. "Though if he does you could always just show him CNN. That'll take all the horror out of the book in quick order."
She chuckled, but there was a distinct lack of mirth in it. Oh good, I thought, I gave you my cold. Sorry sis, I'd say it goes away eventually, but I've been feeling uneasy for the last ten years. Contra me and Jane and Trent, however, Quinn quickly proved that she was far less willing to let it fester than we were. Note to self: could that be the secret to long lasting happiness? Must test on control group of homeless people to be sure.
She said, "So I know what you're thinking and what you're thinking is 'Well why would Quinn want lunch at my place when she could have just eaten with her kids', and all I have to say to that is I really really need you advice on something and I just couldn't just talk to you over the phone or in the hotel or something because I don't know I guess I just really needed something like a friendly environment to talk and...and yeah, I guess that's what I needed."
I blinked, let a moment of silence pass between us. "Um, could you play that back for the Court, please?"
"I didn't just want to visit you because of this problem I have though, I swear! I really really wanted to see you and Tommy and Timmy and especially Teddy wanted to see you again too but this thing's just been bugging me and I really don't know who else I can turn to right now."
"Quinn," I said, "just hold on a second. I already figured you really honestly wanted to see me."
I saw her face brighten. "Good! Because it's true Daria, really honestly!"
"I know that." I pointed at my sandwich. "Otherwise you would have made me make lunch."
Quinn covered her forehead with both hands and stared off into the corner of my kitchen. When I looked at her face I saw the expression of someone who was horribly lost. Our childhood fights would have needed to be far worse and as endless as a tribal war for me to not see that and pause.
"Alright Quinn," I said, softening my own face as much as I could, "no sarcasm, no jokes, just honesty. What's going on?"
Unsurprisingly, she didn't say anything at first. That left my brain enough time to start assuming, a fools act if there ever was one. It was about S'mores and Pores, wasn't it? Was she thinking of ending it? Was she miserable too? No— knowing the way the universe favours the fortunate few, the real problem was no doubt that whatever TV producer she was about to wine and dine with wanted to bump her show up to the big leagues, and she wasn't sure if that was what she wanted out of her career. To end up beholden to script writers like me or producers that treated you like a dollar bill with a perfume sent. Yes, I thought, there could be no doubt that S'mores and Pores was going to be added to the HGTV line-up, and Quinn was about to ask me a series of questions that conclusively proved she not only had more money than I did, but also more self-respect.
The mind process a lot in only a few seconds of silence. It had felt like a week long excursion into a densely packed jungle to me, but by the time Quinn spoke, the small hand on my kitchen clock had barely completed half a revolution. Einstein and Raft's breadth requirements had prevented me from making the Dean's List one semester— now here he was, making my family reunion stretch onwards to infinity.
Quinn said, "Daria...are you ever afraid that you're be too much like parts of the family that you don't want to be like?"
"I...um...excuse me?" I said. My tongue tripped into a knot.
"I just...you remember that time Mom and Aunt Amy and Aunt Rita were fighting, right?"
I did—quite vividly, in fact. Both the before and after. I said, "Quinn, I think you and I have avoided being at each other's throats for a reason. We're— "
"No no that's not what I'm saying, Daria!" Quinn's hands danced over my table like string marionettes.
"Ok, then what are you saying?"
She paused again. Luckily for me, my brain kept quiet too. Eventually, she said, "Mom always said that Grandma treated Rita way better than her and Amy, and Dad's Dad treated everybody badly..."
"Dad's Dad was a psychopath." I pushed my sandwich away and leaned over the table, getting a bit closer to Quinn but not enough to make it seem like a dramatic gesture. "Quinn, you can't honestly be worried that you're abusive."
"I'm not but..." Then she fell silent again. I don't think she was close to tears, but I heard frustration in her voice. The words wouldn't come, and she felt like she was choking on sand. I know because that's how I felt whenever words failed me and I needed to get something off my chest— the difference being, of course, that I simply swallowed the sand while Quinn kept fighting against it.
All the same, I think I understood what she was trying to say. I just needed to be sure, first.
"Are you worried that you're treating one kid better than the others?" I said. When I saw the shift in Quinn's eyes, I knew I was on the right track.
"Or just treating one...differently." She and I looked towards the alcove, where the Timmy and Tommy were watching TV with glazed eyes. Every now and again Teddy would peak his head over the edge of The Graveyard Book and join his brothers, but he otherwise seemed content with Mr. Gaiman's prose. Then our eyes drifted back towards to the kitchen, towards the sister we were sitting across from.
"I want to be a good Mom for all of them, you know?" she said. "I mean...I had it lucky. I fit in easy. Or I acted like a fit in easy. And that meant Mom and Dad and I, like, jelled together really well. Or something. And so growing up was easy for me. You know, until I decided I wanted something different. But even then it was, you know, kinda like a cake-walk. For me."
I thought about reaching out a hand, but decided against that. What Quinn was saying was...surprising, to say the least. But acting like I was suddenly overcome by emotion via this confession would probably do more harm than good. Instead, I said, "Quinn, none of your kids are going to grow up to be me."
A look of shock, then guilt. "What? Well...w-what's wrong with that!" she said.
Want a list? I thought, almost said, in fact. But I pushed that back where it belonged. "That's not what I meant. I'm saying that you're not neglecting any of your kids or making one of them feel like an outsider. To be honest, I'm not even sure why you're worried about this."
Her brow wrinkled, like I'd disregarded coherent sentences and said something about traffic lights or nasal congestion instead. "What do you mean?" she said. Was I genuinely confusing? Or was she convinced that she had done something terrible and that the entire world knew it on instinct? Being that she was a Morgendorffer, I had a hunch it was the later.
I disengaged and turned my attention back to the TV, with Timmy and Tommy and Teddy. They were all sitting peacefullyÃ¢â‚¬â€ Teddy still had his book, his brothers were still drinking in whatever unsanctioned adventure Ms. Frizzle had roped her kids into. I waited until I was sure Quinn's eyes had followed me over before I started speaking.
"If someone was feeling left out, I'd be able to tell. Look at them— Teddy is completely comfortable and his brothers haven't done anything except call him over when the show started. That wouldn't happen with an asymmetrical relationship— not unless heavy tranquilizers were involved."
"Yeah," Quinn said, quietly. "I guessed you would know."
"And asymmetry breeds rebellion. The kind that precludes effective orders in cafés." I paused and let myself smile as Quinn turned around to face me. "Or invites to weddings from other parts of the family. But luckily you don't have that problem."
She blinked. "Because I'm divorced."
"I meant because you have your house in order, but you can list out another positive quality if you want."
My smile spread to her lips. "I just worry! I worry all the damn time and God is it tiring!"
Preach sister, I said to myself. Out loud I said, "That's to your advantage though. It means you care enough about your kids to question your style and whether you're being fair. You're making sure you're not blind to them or their needs. Just...don't work yourself into a tizzy so much." I put up my hand before she could say anything. "Do as I say, not as I do. I'm a Morgendorffer too, you know— most of the time I'm too busy to fight against my genes."
Quinn accepted what I said (for the moment) and sat back in her chair, mulling my little speech over in her head. After a few seconds of quiet, she said, "So what you're saying is...being afraid of being a bad parent is good?"
My face must have twitched in an odd way, as Quinn started looking at me as though I had a spider crawling out of my eye. "What?" she said.
"Nothing," I said, getting my face back to normal. "Just a...major case of deja vu. But otherwise yes, that's exactly what I'm saying."
She gave me a skeptical eye. "And you're...being honest with me, right?"
I nodded. "I'd only lie to you if it involved your outfits."
"Har-har," she said. But she was smiling again, and that's what mattered. "Thanks sis."
"No problem," I said.
"Do we...hug now?"
"Mmm," I said. "That sounds dangerous."
A small chuckle. "Agreed."
And with that business concluded, I decided that I was hungry and wanted my sandwich. That was the only thing on my mind at that moment in time—a nice, peaceful serenity that contrasted nicely with a fit of worrying I had forgotten about, and had events continued along the well-paved and maintained road they seemed to be traveling on, I don't doubt that I would have felt that way until Quinn and the kids had left and I was forced back into the salt mines with the broken chisel I called my scriptwriting software. As I pulled my plate closer though, the back tires blew out and we went from well-paved road to rough, boulder-infused gravel.
"So," she said, picking up her own sandwich. "On the way to New York I was thinking about something."
"Yeah. You should try to write a novel or something."
I stopped eating my sandwich. In fact, that was the last bite I ended up taking of that sandwich—it would end up in the trash fairly soon. As I put it back down on my plate, I eyed my sister and said, "And why's that?" Even though I knew exactly what the why actually was.
"Well," Quinn said. "I mean you hate working for that icky David Wolfgrain or whatever so much, so maybe it'd get you like a publishing deal and you could write whatever you wanted whenever you wanted. That'd make you happy, right?"
With that, the feeling I'd completely forgotten about— the one where I was dreading talking to my sister because I was sure careers were going to be discussed in gory, gory detail. We had avoided that so far—I was partial to keeping it that way.
"It's a bit more complicated that that, Quinn," I said. I thought I detected ice in my voice. Quinn didn't— not at that moment.
"Oh I know that Daria," she said. "I know you need like an agent or something, but I'm just saying that it might do you some good, you know?" She took another bite, but stopped chewing halfway through as an idea came to her. "Hey! Do TV Producers have an in with book agents?" She looked positively ecstatic when she asked me that, but at the time I couldn't see anything except the million or so exit points I could use to end the conversation right then and there.
Because of that, all I said was, "No." Quinn's deflation happened instantaneously.
"Oh," she said. She started picking at her sandwich again. "Well still, I think you should go back to writing stories. Got any ideas?"
Again, all I said was, "No."
"What, does David like, have rules about writing outside of the show?"
"No Quinn," I said. "I just don't have any ideas." This time there was enough force behind my words that I think she realized what I was saying. Of course I was completely unaware that, maybe, the harshness in my voice was counter-productive, perhaps even offensive. But I just wanted the conversation over with, and that was the only thing really occupying my thoughts at that moment.
Quinn pushed her plate away. "Is David doing something to you?" she said.
Other than making writing feel like a filthy crime? No, nothing at all. "Sometimes we just run out of ideas. It happens. Not every writer can be like Stephen King or Joyce Oates, you know, and even they need to take a break every now and again."
"But...for like ten years Daria?"
I just barely kept my fist from smashing apart my plate. Why had this happened? How had I gone from smiling like kid in a carnival to a level of slowly seething rage that I hadn't felt at a family member since the fiasco with Rita and Amy almost two decades ago? You want the answer? The answer was I was so defended about my misery and what caused it and how I was wallowing in it that the mere mention of it sent my neurons into an angry tailspin. You can probably guess who it was really directed at: you're reading about a woman who had her head hung low because she wasn't as happy as she thought she should be, and she was starting to think that the dream she had successful chased— the thing that had gotten her through a tumultuous early life— wasn't just pitifully ineffective, but the primary cause of this miserable cloud haunting my life. It wasn't that my opinions on a world that had gone to ****t at a rate not seen since the 1930's was effectively muzzled by one of the few people with enough power to boost it's reach— no, the dream of being an outspoken champion for social and economic justice died the moment I realized what kind of show I was writing for. Being angry about that would at least let me look at myself in the mirror without snarling. As it was, the self-pity I was embroiled in left me feeling completely empty. Yes, all of that anger was directed inwards, because that's who I felt deserved it the most. So of course I was about as willing to talk about it as a Mafia enforcer in an interrogation room.
But Quinn was also at a disadvantage— for all the good will that I knew was there, she just wasn't Jane. And if Jane couldn't get me to open up, then what chance did Quinn have?
"I don't want to talk about it," I said. I hoped that would be the end of it.
"Daria please," Quinn said. "You should at least try it. You being this unhappy...it sucks Daria."
"Sorry Quinn," I said, my eyes growing harder. "I didn't mean to drag your mood down."
"I...no I'm just saying that— "
That what? I thought. That I should just get over it and put pen to paper? Pull up my bootstraps? Don't you think I know that Quinn? Don't you think that I've tried? You can only take so many jeers and direct insults from a someone who controls your income and your life before the thing that you've always wanted, the thing that gave you one of the few modicums of identity and confidence, is completely tainted. I don't know how to pick myself up, Quinn. I just don't. There's no joy in it anymore. I'm dangling from a branch in a well and the sap just doesn't taste like honey anymore. Everyone trying to get me to talk about it doesn't help in the slightest—I'm better off with them dancing around the point like Mom and Dad.
I could have told her that. Maybe she would have understood. Even better —maybe she could have offered a solution. Would it have been good? Probably not, through no fault of her own. But it would have been a stepping stone, which was more than I had at the moment.
But if I couldn't even tell that to JaneÃ¢â‚¬â€ someone who was feeling almost exactly what I was, without the crippling self pity that pulsed around everything I did and everything I experienced —then, again, what chance did Quinn have?
So what I did instead was interrupt my sister by raising my hand and saying, "I said I don't want to talk about it, Quinn."
"But why not? You used to love writing, I saw you when you were doing it! I know that David is a massive bastard or whatever which is why I think you need to do something else!"
"Like, remember when you and Jane did that poster thing? Even though you didn't want to? I know you, I bet that made you feel great!"
"So I'm just saying that I bet all you need to be happy is to just do something like that again, you know? Just get out and do it! I bet Jane feels the same way."
"And if I wanted to discuss this with anyone, it'd be with her and not you."
It was out. I said it. The malice in my words was enough that, even now, I can practically taste it.
I enveloped my head in my hands.
"Oh my god I did not just say that..."
Quinn's eyes were locked on her sandwich, sitting half-eaten at the edge of her plate. "I know that," she said softly.
It was out and there was no way I could take it back...
We spent a long time sitting in silence, neither one of us sure how to end the visit, even though we both knew it needed to be ended after what I had said. She'd come to me for help then offered her own hand in return, but what did I do? I spat on it. With one sentence I made my own sister feel unwelcome in my home. Parts of me, predictably, tried to pass blame off to her, saying that if she hadn't pushed me I wouldn't have said it. That sickened me, but at least it didn't last long. I suppose one positive thing about the build-up of self-loathing I was running on was that I very clearly realized I was the bad-guy, and any ideas about victim blaming quickly went out the window.
When they did leave, the triplets were quiet as well. It's like they knew their Aunt had made an ass of herself. I told Godzilla as much while he sat on my lap that evening, my laptop on but having reverted to a black screen after twenty solid minutes of staring and nothing more. I didn't feel the same kind of inadequacy or unhappiness that evening as I did on others— the kind I only seemed to get from the mindless drivel I polluted every blank page with.
No, that evening I felt a different kind of inadequate and unhappy. The kind you only get where you start to question your worth as a member of the human race.