Catastrophic Loss

Image of Short Story
Everyone I know and love is insane. My dearest friends are always joining the army, the CIA, the mafia, the Socialists, the Nazis, or the Greens. If I only *like* people, they ask me to defend the rights of rodents in laboratories, or to speak on behalf of Afghan women refugees, or to promulgate the virtues of High Arts. I don’t care a damn about rodent rights, people I’ve never seen, and artsy garbage I never buy. Do you think *I’d* have any rights in a laboratory?
At Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia last week they hacked out half of my best friend Sid’s upper cerebrum to save his life. But it was a mistake. They only had to drop the temperature of his brain to stop the swelling— “edema,” they said. He didn’t have a lawyer... But, here I am, President of Animal Rights. I am an idiot—a political idiot.
I don’t know. I just don’t know.
Don’t mind me—for my generation, “don’t know” was the Eleventh Commandment. So if I say I “don’t know,” it’s a form of prayer... I don’t know.
It could be worse. I could’ve married one of my ex-es from the Jurassic Period. But why couldn’t I find someone who is not:
(1) a victim of the latest viral craze or most fatal drug.
(2) an in-closet lesbian finding her way ‘out’ with or without a bisexual past.
(3) a skeptic about marriage and love but not sex. (I can still hear that one say, ‘you have to believe in *something.’*)
(4) an offspring of a single-parent-home or an obsessed Wagnerian opera fan.
(5) a racist about too many races (though for a break-up, *one* will do).
(6) an unhappily attached woman looking for leverage on an indifferent lover.
(7) or the one I’ll call Godzilla—just to protect her true identity... (There was nothing immediately wrong with Godzilla, but I began having doubts when she mentioned being in love but torn between these two men—neither of them *me,* incidentally.)
I don’t mean to suggest that the women in my life fell into any one of these categories. One of them was as few as two—she was 6 and 4. The oldest one was 1, 3 and 4. Another was 2, 3 and 6. The worst was 2, 3, 5 and 6 (she was the ‘first’). What a catastrophe! Never mind. No, I mean, I don’t know...
Sorry, I have to make these mental lists to recall what I *do* know—because, you know, once I was with this really nice Irish woman in a little cafe swapping worst-relationship stories, and she said how sorry she felt for a friend whose wife had just left him to become a totally out lesbian. “He was so distraught, it was such a blow to his ego. Did you ever hear anything *like* it?...”
And there *I* was—all sympathy—saying how sad it was. But then it clicked!
“Oh, yeah—I just remembered— it— it happened to *me* too.”

Occasionally, it dawns on me that women are as insane as men are, but they don’t have as many acceptable outlets for it. It’s this Oh-so-little-town-of-Bethlehem syndrome too... Where else could you know every single actor, dancer, painter, poet, musician, composer, performance artist, virtuoso, jazzman, diva, choreographer, photographer, sculptor, writer, rocker, folksinger and playwright? I’m sick of being totally cross-referenced. No, I don’t want to know the name of that blonde prostitute on my street. She’s the only person left who I *don’t* know.
(Okay, it was Barbara, I admit it. But I only know this because a *poet* told me. Who else would know?)
Where else could *I* be a candidate for a splinter group like Animal Rights?... Ha!
Not that I’m not well qualified....
What am I talking about?!
Never mind,...never *mind*....
Speaking of which. Sid’s a vegetable, now.

I don’t know... No, that’s my empirical scientific side talking. I remember what it’s like to be treated like an animal, a mindless thing. My parents photographed me when I was three months old once. They laughed and smiled and cunningly teased and distracted me on the bed until they were able to sneak back and spread a giant silvery parabolic mirror like a fan. Then a lightning-colored FLASH! blazed and blinded me so badly that it hurt my eyes and head. It wasn’t funny anymore, that is, to *me.* But they thought this was even more amusing as I pouted toward agonized tears, so they laughed. I realized then that I had been ‘set up.’ I didn’t have any words in my head, let alone my mouth, but I *knew*... I *knew* they’d tricked me, and that they didn’t care, because they did it again: FLASH! That did it— I cried like an H-bomb. I still have the pictures to prove it, too, but nobody believes I could remember this in my so-called pre-linguistic animal stage.
Well, almost nobody. There was *one* person who could use it against me.
I never should have told Mary, the former President of Animal Rights, because when I did, she immediately burst out:
“*That’s* how they treat *animals!*”
“Wha—?” I said, unsuspecting of her slightly drunk manner. (We were at her favorite restaurant/bar.)
“I’m so happy you *know*—you *know* how animals *feel!*”
“Who’re you calling an animal?” I demanded, not quite coherently, having had a few myself.
“John—I always thought you were selfish. Until now!” She gushed with regret.
Though she was warm, disarming and pretty, Mary had this stodgy sense of Homogenized Good and Unwashed Evil. Until that moment, to her way of thinking, I’d been half-way between two mutually exclusive worlds. I didn’t fit into the universe as she knew it, so she feared, admired, condemned and cajoled me. Until then, that is. If *she* hadn’t been drinking, she’d never have talked me into running for president. She made it sound so goddamn noble yet glamorous, righteous yet perverse. For once, I was able to sympathize. What a catastrophe.
My first meeting was one of the most surreal events of my life. That was where I was nominated by Mary. I never saw anything like them before. The moment I walked into their congregation, I felt unbearably guilty. I can’t explain the aura, but it was heavy like syrup in the air of the little library lounge filled with paintings of birds and natural history books. But there was nothing sweet about them. They were so much older than me; even their little *kids* seemed older than me. I felt like throwing up.
Incidentally, they had come together not only to nominate candidates but to screen a film full of the horrors of industrial farming. Some of these brave volunteers had gone off to film chicks being mutilated in ways I can’t retell. Some of the scenes seemed to overplay these tortures with a voyeuristic fascination that made me feel even more revulsion. Even though I, unlike Mary, was an actual vegetarian, I felt intolerable guilt because the narrator of the movie detailed horror after horror after horror.
They had *that* kind of authority in their worn-out eyes. They were Robert Frost without any bucolic farm imagery. They were terrifying in their pain and their gift for telling others what was right. And there was a funerary pallor in their complexions.
Anyway, Mary seemed so *human* by contrast to the others that when she touched my arm and asked, “You okay?”
I said, “Sure.” What a catastrophe.

But the real loss wasn’t mine but Sid’s. He lost his sentient life because of an industrial accident at Bethlehem Steel.... Of course, there were no brain surgeons in this little town. He was flown by Med-Evac to Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia, in the real world. And so I’d lost my faith in Bethlehem, and I won my first election.