Friday, April 26, 2013

"Massacre of the Innocents" by Adam Jacobson (Short Story)

Genre:  General Fiction

Type of Short Story:  Short Story

Complete Story:

If you asked me if rabbits are intelligent creatures, I would tell you the truth; that rabbits are just like people. Some of them are smarties, most of them are average joe’s, and some of them are… well… a bit slow. There’s a bell-curve going on there, I would say. Just like with us.

And you’d say Hm, and nod your head, and you would probably start talking about something else, and you woulddefinitely not understand the significance of what you just heard. But that’s okay; sometimes, rabbits don’t learn from their mistakes the first time around. Sometimes, they have to be trained a bit.

But enough about rabbits. Let’s talk about me.

I rarely speak. And I never write, which is the only rule I have for myself (I don’t much believe in rules). I never write because I’m not very destructive. I don’t believe in ruining things by confining them to words; life is too big for that. But this story is important. It needs to be shared. And writing is, I think, the best way to share it. So, today, I’m breaking my only rule.

Besides that, you don’t need to know a whole lot else. Only that I’m a smartie. You need to know that — and to really believe it — if you want to understand. So, if I don’t tell you too much else about myself, it’s only because then you’ll probably think that I’m not. Smart, that is.

For instance, if somebody walks up to your car smelling funny and holding a cardboard sign, you might give her money just because you assume that she’s homeless, which isn’t always the case. Or, if I told you that I have big boobs, and my favorite color is pink, and I sometimes sleep in a lime-green onesie (only when it’s really cold out), you might be more focused on buying the next round of shots than you are on the words coming out of my mouth.

I’m tired of people looking at me instead of listening. Which is why I decided to write to you (instead of telling you) to warn you about the rabbits. And about him.

I met him in an unfurnished studio apartment in the seedy section of Downtown LA, where all of the Mexicans live and there’s always a wrestling match on TV or an angry husband or a rattling laundry machine keeping you awake late into the night. The air tasted like old people’s clothes, and plastered to the wall every five feet were those “Warning: This building is old so you’ll probably get cancer” signs that you always see in California in those old buildings that will probably give you cancer.

Maybe having so many signs in his hallway scared him, because his door had a chain that only let it open a few inches. Like maybe he thought the bad things in the world were too broad to fit through that little crack, so he could be safe inside.

Jay isn’t here, he told me.

I’m not here to see Jay, I thought to myself.

Come in, he said.

And that was how I met him.

Most girls remember things like smiles, or hair, or what kind of watch he wore. But what I remember the most was his laughter. How it tinkled like the impact of an ornament falling from a Christmas tree, beautiful and broken. A part of me probably knew that I would be seeing him again. I told myself that I wouldn’t.

The next day, there I was again, back in his crummy apartment. I brought a folding chair this time so that I would have somewhere to sit. I talked about rabbits, and he listened. He really listened, and, looking up from his perch on the ground underneath those iron-barred windows, he asked me a question about them (rabbits, not barred windows), which isn’t rare in itself, but is rare because it wasn’t the typical question (are rabbits intelligent creatures?) that I always get.

Don’t you think rabbits dislike living in a cage? He asked me, catching me off guard. I mean, there’s not much to do. They have a water bottle, an empty space to sleep in, and that’s about it.

The dripping of the kitchen sink punctuated the silence between words. Drip, drip, drip.

It wasn’t that I hadn’t considered the question myself before. More that I had never had to put my thoughts into an answer for someone else. So, I chose my words carefully.

Not if they have a friend in there with them, too, I replied.

You see, a lot of people don’t know about rabbits. They think that they’re stupid or simple when they are anything but. If a rabbit is kept in a cage all alone, of course she’s going to get lonely. She can even get depressed. Now, it would seem that the obvious solution is to put two of them together, but that’s not necessarily the case. You see, rabbits can be very aggressive. Put one friendly rabbit with another, and they might fall in love. Or, they might end up killing each other. Really.

Soon, we moved in together. There was no real reason to wait. But maybe we should have waited after all, because, slowly (but not too slow for me to notice), things started to change. He was still the same person as before, and so was I, but there was something about us living together in the same room that made it feel different. It wasn’t necessarily bad, just stronger. I mean, the happy times were happier like they would never end, and the sad times were sadder like maybe I wanted to rip my hair out and throw it at him or something. Probably it was because he called me Girlfriend now, and names like that always seem to ruin things. Whatever the case, he said it reminded him of back when he lived at this boarding school where they made him lift his arms into the air and spin in a circle every time he came back from a visit to town, and sometimes they even made him pee in a cup if he was gone for an especially long time. And they made him swallow this little yellow thing that made him all sleepy (too sleepy, even, to drive) and made the happy times less happy, but the sad times less sad, so it was worth it, they told him, and I guess that maybe he started believing it, too. Maybe there was a little yellow pill for people that had accidentally fallen in love like we had, he would say. You know, to turn down the volume on our emotions. I don’t think that there is. At least, I hope not.

One day, before we had any furniture, my mother sent my sister to stay with us for the weekend. She said it was because she was applying to schools out here, but I knew the real reason was because my mom wanted to make sure I was okay, so she sent my sister to spy on us. By then, we had rabbits of our own. Six of them, and I could tell that he was falling in love with them (like he swore to me he wouldn’t) because every time I saw him now, he was trying to teach them how to talk. I guess he didn’t understand that they were happier not knowing. They were like our children (but not quite, but kinda), so it made me mad when my sister didn’t ask any questions about them, not even the boring ones. But that’s my sister; she always has too many problems of her own. And, during the times that she doesn’t, she’s usually able to find more worth worrying about.

Do you think that love is real? She asked.

I pointed at my furry friends munching away inside their corner playpen in response.

So, you’re saying that it is real? She probed, so uncertain.

No, I said. I’m saying that it doesn’t matter.

She looked confused.

I sighed. They don’t know what love is, I told her. They don’t have a word for it. So they have no choice but to love one another.

She tilted her head. So you’re saying —

— Of course love is real. But only if you don’t think about it too hard. By the time you define it, it’s too late; you’ve already ruined it.

She didn’t say much after that.

I don’t think my sister was satisfied with the answer I gave her, even though I know I was right. You see, us humans ruin things with words. We talk too much, saying nothing, and yet spoiling everything for ourselves. She wanted to be sure, to be certain. She didn’t realize that it is the very desire to be certain that makes us so uncertain in the first place. Sometimes, it is best to just let go.

This wisdom, I soon found out, was easier to digest when I wasn’t the one that had to swallow it; it became a whole lot harder once he started getting lost when he was out and coming home very late, or sometimes not at all. After it happened a few times, I took him to a store and helped him pick out one of those phones that has a map built into it, which I thought would make things better, but it really just made it worse. And sometimes now, he would be lost for several days at a time, and he would come home with black rings around his beautiful blue eyes, and he would laugh his little laugh, but it was no longer a beautiful laugh, just broken, like a cabinet that always gets stuck on its hinges on the way open. The kind of cabinet that you just eventually stop using because it’s not worth the trouble anymore. And his phone with the maps built into it would light up and there would be messages from numbers I didn’t recognize and names that I had never seen.

It went on like this for a while, getting harder and harder for me to ignore, but I don’t think that the rabbits ever noticed. They were much too busy munching away on their dry hay, or lying in big happy piles of themselves, or exploring the eight-by-four playpen through the fresh eyes of eternal curiosity. I envied them; they were so innocent that I just wanted to be like them, but realized that I never could, simply because I knew what the word innocent meant. Simply because I could define it. So I stared at them, those Holy Innocents staring blankly back at me, free of all blame and guilt and harmful intent. They were helpless and pathetic, I realized. They couldn’t even defend themselves. Their peacefulness was unearned and infuriating, and I didn’t envy them one bit.

But I was patient. And he was worth it, I kept telling myself. And so, I waited. And one day he didn’t come home for an especially long time, and I was up all night dreaming up these horrific images of what might have happened to him (alternately terrified then hopeful that they had, in fact, come true), and I was just about to fall asleep when the phone rang. It wasn’t him calling; it was a number I didn’t recognize, a name I had never seen before. But by then, I had already jumped out of bed, and it was almost bright out anyways, so I decided to answer it. I forget what the man inside my phone’s last name was, but he said his first name was Doctor, and he gave me an address and told me that I should come there straight away. So I did.

A lot of people seem to pay attention to the way other people look. They recognize each other by the symmetry of their faces, by the names sewn into the tags on their clothing. But I recognize people by the way that they behave. And when I got there, I didn’t recognize him at all. Doctor told me that he would be fine, but that I shouldn’t let him drive for a couple of days until he got used to it. When I asked him what needed getting used to, Doctor handed me a big bottle filled with these little yellow candies. Make sure he takes one of these every morning when he wakes up, Doctor made sure to mention. It’s very important, Doctor said.

So I did. And everything changed.

He wasn’t out late anymore. In fact, he wasn’t out much at all. He spent most of his time smiling his vague smile and keeping the house clean, and he was even learning how to cook. They were all things that should have made me happy, but they didn’t. I guess it’s because something was different on his inside. Like maybe it was the same body as before, but he got worn out from living, and so he was letting somebody else take over the controls. I think the rabbits could tell that something was wrong this time, because on the increasingly rare occasions that he would try to pick them up, they would kick at him, and he would drop them back down to the floor again with a thud. I think rabbits recognize people by the way that they behave, too. Just like me.

Then, one day, I was the one who got lost. It must have been a Wednesday, because I was out shopping for stir-fry night. I remember being sick of the salty taste of Kikkoman light soy sauce, but knowing that I should just be grateful that he was at least cooking for me now. I was in the produce aisle reaching for the last red bell pepper when I realized that I had accidentally grabbed somebody’s hand instead. Something about the warmth of the hand made me want to squeeze it. It felt vibrant, alive, like a way that I used to remember feeling before he started eating those little yellow candies all of the time. I followed the hand up to a wrist, and a wrist up to a well-muscled arm, and an arm up to a solid chest, then all the way up to a smile. And I hate myself just thinking about it now, but I smiled right back.

Stir fry? He said.

It must have been a lucky guess. Or maybe he just knew what I needed to hear.

I probably knew how to get home, but I told myself that I didn’t. And I pretended to myself that my phone with the maps built into it was broken. And even if I could somehow get it working (which I probably couldn’t), it was buried somewhere in my purse, which was all the way down in Red Bell Pepper’s kitchen, and I was probably too drunk to make it down the stairs safely, and certainly too drunk to make it home in one piece. I asked for another drink for good measure.

And then it was morning and I was waking up, and my makeup was smeared in black circles around my beautiful blue eyes, and I was shouting at him but probably really at myself, and I drove back home as fast as I could.

When I got there, he was doing the dishes. He looked up and smiled at me vaguely. Maybe he didn’t even realize that I hadn’t come home the night before. I held up my phone. It’s out of battery, I said. Sorry. He nodded his head, like everything made sense. And then I went upstairs and showered for a long, long time.

All day long, I expected him to say something, but he never did. Not when he got home from work and tugged off his apron and his black non-slip shoes, and not when he kissed me on my forehead in the dark and rolled over to his side of the bed, his chest slowly rising and falling to the prescribed rhythm of his chemically engineered pseudo-sleep. I wanted to straddle his chest and smack him until he woke up — not from his sleep, but woke up for real — but I knew that it wouldn’t change anything, so instead I found his little bottle of yellow candies in his nightstand drawer and I dumped them into the toilet and flushed it, and I threw the plastic tube off of our balcony as far as I could.

I thought it would make me feel better, and maybe it did a little bit, but I still couldn’t sleep. I just kept thinking about what it would be like when he pissed out all of the medication and finally realized what a bitch I truly am. I kept thinking about how happy that would make me.

It took a couple of days, but bit by bit, his eyes started lighting up. And his laughter was still fragile like a glass ornament, but just as beautiful again. And he didn’t get lost, but he didn’t stay home all day either. He was just the way he should be, and he was slowly starting to realize that I was anything but. Maybe he was the one that ruined everything by calling me Wife, but I couldn’t help but feel like it was all my fault.

I think that’s why I was so relieved when he finally realized the truth. I knew it as soon as he got home from work. I could hear him slipping off his wing-tips, hear the coat rack swaying under the weight of his blazer. Sounds that I should have been used to by then, but somehow, they were different. His fury was quiet — much quieter than I deserved — and there was a sadness, too. Like maybe he shouldn’t have called me Wife. Like maybe, just maybe, this was all his fault.

I knew that it wasn’t.

I wish he yelled, or maybe even hit me. That would have made things better. But instead he was calm, reasonable even. The sane one. And I was the one with too many words, speaking and spouting off and spoiling everything, like I had always promised myself not to. And I could tell that he was thinking that this was it, that maybe we were never supposed to be put together in the same tiny bubble of a life. That maybe he shouldn’t have taken the chain off of his door so it would open wide enough for me to step through. And he was one-hundred-percent right. And I was thinking say it, say it already, because one of us has to, and there’s no way that I’m strong enough so it has to be you. And the rabbits were clicking away, their tiny tongues flicking at the empty water bottle, confused at searching for water and tasting nothing but empty air. And I don’t think I ever hated them more, with their careless happiness and their complete lack of understanding of how much pain a word can hold. They can’t even use words. They’re stupid, stupid creatures, all of them.

And somewhere between my endless tears and how busy I was hating the rabbits, he disappeared. I don’t think I even got to say goodbye.

That was earlier today. And now there’s a big, empty him-shaped hole in my life where he is supposed to be. And all I know is that I can never fill it, not with rabbits or Red Bell Peppers or all of the silence in the world.

Somebody once told me that, when rabbits fall in love, you can not take them away from one another. That, if you separate them, they will die. For real. I wonder if it’s true.

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