They agreed that Barbara should wait at the restaurant. The heat – it was too much for her. The heat and the noise and the dust, and having to squeeze past crowds, past paper lanterns and beer t-shirts, past silk scarves and skewers of meat just to inch along the street – it was not for her. There was just today in Bangkok. Tomorrow they would go to the beach and her husband and daughter had promised her that she could have all the quiet she liked. Quiet was good for her. Or maybe it wasn’t good, but she liked it.
Barbara enjoyed fast food restaurants. The key was to eat as little as possible, so as to minimize the harm. She folded her hands on the little table in front of her and looked out through the glass wall to the street, to the crowd pushing past, smiling but not stopping for the big blonde girl who’d gotten her dangling earring caught on an awning.
Barbara felt safe. As if there was a guarantee that, in this air-conditioned box of nonsense, nothing meaningful could occur. She was protected. You clogged your heart of course – but that was only trouble for later.
Her husband said she had a lot of strange ideas. She said she believed in paying attention. Her daughter said she paid so much attention she completely missed the point.
Look at this giant chicken, with his cowboy hat and his outstretched arms. A chicken beaming among the red yellow orange balloons above the red yellow orange chairs. On the walls huge faces of white children were emblazoned among deep-fat fried giant chicken parts. Each white face was laughing, but very carefully, so as to show only the top set of teeth.
There were reasons for this, Barbara was certain. Probably bottom teeth had been found by some marketing research group to signify uncertainty or mortality or lust – and thus had no place in this, the haven of fried chicken and joy.
She enjoyed this restaurant very much. She could feel entirely safe here, almost. If only she hadn’t seen that horrible chicken documentary. Because, even if the human race were perfect in every other way, just for what we did to chickens we would never be forgiven.
Barbara often dreamed of Armageddon. She wondered if this was normal. Barbara was interested in being normal. Which turned out to be difficult because it wasn’t like there’s a list posted anywhere: Guidelines to Normal. You were told what your ideal weight and blood pressure – Barbara was too high in both – but as for the rest you had to figure it out. That is why Barbara wished she could give surveys.
She wanted to ask: How often do you dream of the end of the world? She dreamed of the end all the time. Just the night before she’d been up on the Twin Towers getting ready to climb down an external fire escape with no provisions other than a rotten head of lettuce.
“You think too much!” her husband said, several times each day. Her daughter said so, too. They said it as if they expected her to simply and obediently stop thinking, right there and then, the way a dog drops a bone.
Her husband was almost certainly, at this moment, getting a blowjob in a massage parlor. She supposed she ought to mind. The truth was that sex would make him feel guilty, guilt would make him kind, and kindness would drastically improve their vacation. That blowjob was service to the whole family, really.
Barbara hoped he was with one of the glamorous lady boys they’d seen bobbing down the street among high heels, ringlets, adam’s apple and acrylic nails. Her husband had stared at one, and then he shook his head, as if to say, “Can you believe that?” But Barbara wasn’t fooled for a minute. If I get breakfast in bed, she thought, I’ll know it was a boy.
Her daughter said that Barbara had absolutely no sense of humor. But she did. There was just so little she could say out loud.
She looked around the restaurant. It was two-thirds full, but almost silent except for the piped in music and a timer going bing in the kitchen. Everyone was looking at their phone. Even the baby in his stroller had his own play phone. When he was ready to talk, he’d call somebody up.
According to Barbara’s estimation, it had been about eighteen months since the world had fallen to second place. Now, for those who could, the screen came first and more people looked at it than at the world around them.
What a perfect word: screen. As in a play or lady’s dressing room. A screen, as in a shield. Some place to hide. And Barbara didn’t blame them, not at all. The world became more frightening each day, as our toys turned against us, as our idiocy bounced off the clouds and rained down upon us. Barbara would have hidden, too, if she could, but screens didn’t work for her. Perhaps she was too afraid.
“How’s Thailand doing?” she’d asked the elderly but energetic taxi driver on the way from the airport, after he’d explained that the way he kept up his stamina was by drinking the breast milk of his much younger wife.
Her daughter had rolled her eyes. Her husband was already asleep. “King die soon,” said the taxi driver. “Then civil war start. Same day king die. Not next day. Thailand no one country. Two, three countries.” He said this quickly and matter-of-factly, as if slicing up a fruit.
Barbara had been startled. She assumed she was visiting a stable country. Everything seemed all right. But the lady at the hotel said the same thing, when Barbara asked about it. Thailand was – only a temporary situation. The king was in 24 hour intensive care.
She tried to talk about it with her daughter, who’d said, “That man believed in the power of breast milk!”
“I breastfed you,” Barbara said. And was told, again, that she was incapable of understanding the simplest sentence.
Barbara was sitting very still. No one could say that was wrong. Her back was not touching the back of the seat. Her bottom was sore. The crowd continued to jostle past outside the glass wall. The chicken presided over her with outstretched arms.
The key, Barbara believed, was to remain at all times the same size. She shouldn’t become any bigger. She was already too big, as she learned every moment here, just trying to walk down the street. It was even more important that she not become smaller. She ought to remain at all times Barbara, age 54, five foot six, big in the hips. She should not become the size of a child or a cat or a kitten or a mouse or a roach. Above all, she should not be Alice-in-Wonderland all over the place, now the size of a matchbox, now the size of a house.
There was absolutely nothing wrong with Barbara, her doctor said. She was too sensitive and thought too much. A little vacation might be just the thing. When she came back – perhaps she could find herself a hobby? Of course she had her painting – her little pictures with their unusual colors and that was very nice and he was glad she could enjoy that – but maybe she could find a hobby that included other people. For example, she could join an art class and receive some instruction and paint, you know, actual things.
What she needed, her doctor explained, was a new role – her daughter was grown, her husband busy with work. A new role, a flexible one, of course. She’d still be there when her family needed her!
Someone’s phone was beeping. Was it the girl in the red hat? The boy with the headphones? Just beeping away. It was impossible to tell who because everyone, of course, was playing with his or her phone. Was that necessary? Of course not. Someone had their headphones in. It was completely inconsiderate. That’s how it was nowadays. People couldn’t hear themselves.
Barbara took a small card from her pocket. It read: I am a cultured and wise and yet, a humble person. Her doctor had given Barbara some affirmations and told her she must recite them each day. She should use them instead of her own thoughts. Affirmations like: I feel great about myself! Fear is only a feeling. All is well in my world!
Barbara had a problem with sounds. When she felt a little – ill at ease – she became very sensitive. Voices, footsteps, chewing, sniffling, bells. All kinds of sounds. Sounds that, when she complained about them, her daughter said, “Mom! People don’t even hear those things anymore!”
Not only did Barbara think too much, she felt too much as well. Thus the appointments with Dr. Dillman. To help her make progress toward thoughtlessness and senselessness. She also needed to love herself more, since the time others could spend loving her was very limited. Perhaps self-love would come naturally, when she was thinking less? Right now she was only talking to Dr. Dillman. Drugs were also “an option to explore”.
From overhead, help appeared. The music had changed to the theme from Dirty Dancing. Barbara would have liked to dance. But she was careful to sit still and not mouth the words – she didn’t want to look like a mad woman!
How she wished she could give surveys! She would love a job like that. But only if she could choose the questions herself. Otherwise she’d be stuck asking about race and age – two things widely rumored to not even exist. Whereas, Barbara wanted to ask about Armageddon and, lest that seem overwhelming, she also wanted to know if other people missed Patrick Swayze.
She missed Patrick Swayze so much. And not the same way she missed milk delivery and safe streets. Not even the way she missed, say, Katherine Hepburn. She missed him in a tender down-to-earth way, but not immoderately, as if he’d been the Hollywood equivalent of the check-out lady with the bandanna at Safeway, the one who smiled at you in a way that made the day 35 pounds lighter.
She was older than every person in this restaurant. Including the manager who was by no means young. She would be all right with aging except that the years were so incomplete. Nothing was ever properly finished. So much was not even started. Like notebooks with just a few pages scribbled in, and then so much torn out. If life was in any way reasonable, one would be allowed occasionally “time outs” to make changes to, say, the Spring of 1991.
Barbara had fallen behind, in other words, and, if ever there was any doubt, she had her husband and her daughter to tell her so.
She looked sadly around the restaurant. Thai people would eat at places like this from now on. They’d get fat like Americans and their hair would lose its luster. But what could she do? God help her if she tried to interfere with the global distribution of deep fat fried chicken. They’d lock her up for good.
What could she do? She could do nothing. Therefore, she shouldn’t think about it. That was the formula. So many things not to think about! Almost everything that mattered.
Barbara heard a sound like fireworks. And for Barbara fireworks were never all right, as if she were being reminded of another life, full of bombs. National holidays were awful for her – she also distrusted flags. “You’re like some kind of refugee,” her daughter told her once, and it was true, but – from where?
Barbara put her hands on both sides of the table. She frowned at herself. She was thinking the thoughts she was not supposed to be thinking. The table had gotten so big.
First there was only one siren. And it was a long way off. But then there was another and the first siren was closer.
What could she do? She could do nothing! Therefore, she shouldn’t think. Tomorrow they’d go to the beach. She could have as much quiet as she liked. All she had to do in the meantime was sit at this restaurant and not think and -- ? Love herself. She couldn’t do anything for the chickens or the atmosphere or the Thai people getting fat but she could love herself and think less.
I am special and wonderful! I am my own best friend and cheerleader.
There was another siren, or it was the same one, only closer now. The timer went off in the kitchen. Someone’s phone rang.
Barbara shouldn’t listen. Barbara shouldn’t think. If only she could learn to think, not hear, not feel, not speak – how much better it would be, how much healthier! So much easier for everyone!
Another phone rang. More sirens. Someone stepped outside to take a call and looked concerned. Was that the sound of police cars or ambulances?
I have many qualities, traits and talents that make me unique. I give myself permission to shine!
More sirens. Ambulances or police cars. Maybe fire trucks. Why did the music have to be so loud? Why couldn’t people stop talking on their phones? More fireworks. Or maybe they weren’t fireworks at all.
What if the war had started? Maybe the king was dead.
How about a survey? How fun it would be to give surveys if she could ask all the questions herself! She had a question wanted to ask everyone in this restaurant and also everyone all over the world: how often do you find yourself singing “Islands in the Stream”?
How do you do it exactly? Do you sing Dolly? Do you sing Kenny? Do you try somehow to belt out both parts at once?
Barbara found herself singing “Islands in the Stream” all the time. She couldn’t help herself.
That is what we are!
How can we be wrong?
Sail away with me!!
Having met by chance in the street, Barbara’s husband and daughter returned together to the restaurant together to find Barbara sobbing hysterically, her head on the small orange table.
Both of them felt absolutely terrible. It was just as they suspected. Even small, simple things were too much for Barbara.
Barbara’s daughter put her arms around her mother. Barbara’s husband didn’t know what to do. He was feeling so terribly guilty. He’d even bought a small gift for his wife: a styrofoam container of mango sticky rice.