“Get Well, Seymour!” by Joe Meno (from Demons in the Spring)
Get Well, Seymour!
by Joe Meno
(from Demons in the Spring)
The girl playing badminton is the one. But I don’t want to believe it. It is because her legs are so shapely and long and, in their stunning whiteness, betray a winter spent indoors. Her ankles are well-sculpted, her knees pinkly glowing, and there is something about her slender wrists that suggests the modest charms of aristocracy. I don’t care much about the rest of her. It is the shape of her shadow, the way she stands there bored in the shade of the cruise ship’s upper decks in a green skirt with white tennis socks pulled past her shins; I watch her lean over as she traces something with the edge of her racket, some invisible word or shape in the air. She is daydreaming and the picture she makes in the middle of the ocean liner is one of absolute splendor. I hear the sound of her laughter as the shuttlecock flies her way, her laugh which is not the kind of haughty one you’d expect from a girl who looks the way she does, and suddenly I’ve lost my nerve. I’m no longer red-faced or angry. I forget the direction in which I was walking as soon as I see her standing there, all ease and assurance on the badminton court. I feel the ocean breeze on my face and follow the shape of the shuttlecock as it’s hit back and forth over the wind-blown net and then I begin to wonder how long she has practiced looking so blithe, so poised, so wonderfully self-assured.
“Are you sure that’s her?” I ask, turning to face my sister.
Alexandria nods her head. My younger sister’s face is a collision of odd shapes and silver wire. From her sturdy wire-rimmed glasses to her glimmering metal braces, Alexandria’s features seem both mismatched and regrettable. She is shaped exactly like a pear. When she gets upset, her voice begins to whistle uncontrollably. “Oh, that’s her, all right,” Alexandria says, the metallic glimmer in her lisp high-pitched as she squints knowingly. One of her eyebrows dives below her bifocals lens and is magnified one hundred times to my great terror, as she makes an angry expression. “Well, what are you going to say to her?”
“I don’t know exactly,” I mutter, which at the moment is the absolute truth.
“You don’t know? I thought you said you knew exactly how to handle someone like that.”
“Well, she looks kind of busy,” I murmur. I direct my attention back toward the girl in question. She is now whispering to another blond girl beside her, a younger sibling most probably, and just then the shuttlecock veers over the girl’s head. She laughs—a kind of obvious laugh directed at her audience in the deck chairs before her, meant to demonstrate how much fun she is having—before swinging wildly at the birdie. The shuttlecock tumbles out of her reach and bounces in the soft artificial grass. When she bends over to retrieve it, without a thought, in a graceful and automatic gesture, she places her left hand at the back of her skirt, demurely keeping it in place. I suddenly feel the heat of the tropical sun traveling upon my cheeks. The girl snatches the birdie in her left hand and gives it a solid whack with the racket—serving it high over the net—and it drops daintily at her opponent’s feet. Pleased with herself, the girl takes a small bow, neatly leaning forward from the waist as someone in the nearby deck chairs claps. When the girl rises, she looks up at Alexandria and then over at me. I watch as she goes through the momentary, involuntary calculations—trying to identify us, trying to remember if perhaps we have recently been introduced—and failing to see us as social equals, she happily goes back to the contest.
“Well?” Alexandria asks.
“We’ll wait. We’ll wait until dinner,” I whisper. “When her parents will be there.”
Alexandria nods, giving the girl one final, snotty look, before we both turn our backs and stalk below to our cabin.
It is February, and as such, we are on vacation, though we have not seen our parents in many days. They are once again in love, as both of them have exclaimed multiple times already. There is an inordinate amount of love-pecking, giggles, and hand-holding. We prefer to enjoy a leisurely existence aboard the cruise ship without them as they, more often than not, only leave us regretting their company. They do not come out of their cabin anymore anyway. There is room service on the ship and so they have been taking their meals at odd hours. We know of their habits only by the discarded silver trays left piled up in front of their door, charge slips signed blindly with black ink in my father’s name.
The rest of the ship is old people with money and spoiled brats with regal-sounding last names. I am reminded again and again that I do not belong here. I am a freshman in college at Princeton. I am a Political Science major. I am seriously considering a minor in World Philosophy. I embarked on this loathsome little journey at my mother and father’s desperate request—both of them claimed that it had been almost five years since we had all taken a vacation together—but now it is clear that they invited me along merely as a ploy, and that their invitation was only to ensure that Alexandria, who is twelve years old this month, would have an adult chaperone while they were busy re-exploring the odious physical aspects of their successful marriage. To that, I would have said thanks but no thanks, yet we have just passed Cancun and already it is too late.
I have brought a bundle of books with me, fortunately, and although I do enjoy the briny smell of the ocean and the tremendous profundity of the unfettered sky, it is in the solitude of enjoying Plato and Hegel that I find myself most pleasantly restored. It has been almost impossible to catch up on any reading, however, with Alexandria as an amusing distraction and constant ward. We have made a game of the last few days and I am happy to admit how agreeable I find her company, as she has matured rapidly and is unlike any other twelve-year-old I have ever known. Her interests in science and mathematics are quite astounding. She has begun collecting feathers from the variety of seaborne birds that hover about the upper decks, carefully cataloguing them in a journal devoted to her ongoing projects. She is also quite fond of crossword puzzles. She is unafraid of seeking out words she does not know in my college thesaurus. I only wish Alexandria was not so quick to tears and had a better social sense. At school, away at college the last few months, learning when to offer an opinion and when—even though you might have a very detailed knowledge of a particular subject—you choose to appear diffident, is a skill I have had some difficulty grasping. I am often at odds with my dorm-mate Brice, who believes I want to remain a virgin for all eternity. “Don’t quote ancient Greeks so often,” has been one of his vital instructions. “And stop talking like you’re somebody’s rich grandfather,” is another one, just as important apparently.
On the portside deck, in a pair of lounge chairs, later that very afternoon, Alexandria asks me why I use the vocabulary I do. “If you’re composing a symphony,” I say, “you want to have access to as many different instruments as you can. Consider that. Also, in ancient Greece and as late as the nineteenth century in England, men would often settle their disputes through engaged verbal clashes. I would prefer to handle my own trials with a sharp tongue and a quick wit, than have to resort to violence. And also,” I add, “I don’t believe in talking more simply just to put other people at ease.”
Alexandria rolls her eyes and I pretend to ignore her. She returns her attention to the crossword puzzle folded in her lap and asks, “What’s a seven-letter word for lonely?”
“Dejected,” I answer quickly.
“That’s eight letters,” she says. “It has to start with an F.”
“Forlorn,” I say, sure of its merit.
“That actually works.” She happily jots the word down in the black-and-white squares. “None of the other kids I know like doing crosswords. But I think they’re great.”
“Well, I used to love to do them when I was your age.”
“When you were my age, did you ever wonder why everyone laughed at you?”
I sit up and look my sister in her rounded, uneven face. “When do they laugh?” I ask.
“All the time.”
“Like at school and at parties and things. Whenever I raise my hand or talk or whatever.”
“Wait a moment—you go to parties?”
“Mom makes me.”
“But you get invited to parties?”
“Everybody does. It’s a rule all of the parents have.”
“I just wish I was in college already,” Alexandria says. “I wish I could study whatever I wanted and not have to worry about whether people liked me.”
“It will happen soon. Someday you will find yourself surrounded by people with the exact same interests as you, and you will never feel out of place again,” I say, already wary of the incredible lie I am telling.
At dinner that evening, Alexandria and I stand in line, glancing about the busy dining room for our prim antagonist. I turn and notice that Alexandria has two crystal bowls of chocolate pudding in her hands. Apparently, she has been eating only dessert since both my parents have vanished. We find a table off to the side of the enormous dining room where we can silently observe the goings-on of our shipmates without being noticed ourselves. We stare out at the crowded lines of wrinkled divorcées waiting in line at the buffet, searching for the girl’s familiar, untroubled face. I am trying my best to identify the kind of fish I am eating when Alexandria elbows me in the side harshly. “There she is,” she whispers.
And it is true. I look up and spot the girl sitting pensively at a large circular table. Her parents—old-money types with East Coast features, the large eyebrows, the polite ears, the patrician noses, the gaping mouths—sit on either side of her. Her other siblings are seated around them, laughing, ordering drinks, all of them seeming completely at ease; the father, having shoved the cloth napkin into the front of his shirt collar to jokingly suggest the severity of his hunger, quickly removes it when his wife gives him a stern glance.
“And she’s with her parents,” Alexandria adds, not without pleasure.
“So she is,” I say, and then again, “So she is.”
“Will you just look at her? She thinks she’s so perfect. And look, look at her mother.”
The girl’s mother, bedecked in garish diamond earrings and a double diamond pendant, is as lovely as her daughter, if not more so. She looks like an actress, like someone who has never had to speak louder than a whisper.
“Where do you think they’re from?” Alexandria asks.
“Massachusetts. Or Connecticut,” I venture. “Connecticut, most probably.”
“How can you tell?”
“The way the father combs his hair. Everybody from Massachusetts combs their hair like that at school. Parted down the middle with no sideburns.”
“Look how tan the dad is. Maybe he’s a politician of some kind. Maybe he’s a senator.”
“He’s no senator,” I say. “He sells stocks and bonds. Or he is a golf pro. Or he manages a chain of health clubs.”
“Look at how that girl holds her fork. Like she think she’s a princess or something.”
“Yes, or something.”
“So are you going to go over there or not?” Alexandria asks, her feathery voice now becoming urgent.
“I don’t know. Do you still want me to?”
“Yes,” she says without equivocation, the single word a hiss of tongue and teeth and braces.
“And you’re sure she’s the one who said it?”
“I already told you,” she hisses again, this time losing her patience. “She pointed at me when I was in the changing room and called me Baby Huey. Then she started laughing.”
I silently watch my sister’s eyes fill up with tears.
“If you’re going to chicken out, I’ll just go tell Mom and Dad and let them handle it,” she whispers.
“No, no, there’s no need to do that. I just don’t want to go over there and make a fool of myself, if, well, if you happen to be mistaken.”
“She’s definitely the one. She said it to that other girl. And then they both started laughing.”
“And you’re sure you heard what you think you did?”
“Yes,” she says almost without a sound, her face going red. Does she even understand the origin of the insult, I wonder? Is it possible she only heard what she did because of how terribly she feels about the odd shape of her body? It doesn’t matter now. Her oblong face is red and her tears appear gigantic behind her unbecoming bifocals. I decide I really must do something.
“Okay, try and stop crying,” I say, holding her hand. I glance back at the other table. The girl is finishing her dessert with great aplomb while her younger sibling is sitting with her arms crossed, pouting, staring down at her food with an expression of disdain. It is obvious that they are spoiled. Each child already has the permanent crease around the mouth one gets from perpetual frowning. I do not like the look of them, any of them really, with their formal ties and dress shirts, the mother with her heavy makeup and jewelry. These are not the precincts of Rome or Paris. This is not the hidden port of Morocco. This is a cruise ship, a cruise ship, and not some famous ocean voyage. Who are they to put on airs? Who is that girl to think she can be hurtful to a fellow human without any consequences? I feel the anger rising in me again as I set down my knife and fork.
“All right,” I say, “I’m going over there.”
“You are?” Alexandria’s smile seems to appear from nowhere.
“Yes. Are you done eating?”
As a testament, there are the two empty pudding bowls and a number of dots of chocolate along Alexandria’s lips and teeth.
“All right. I want you to go back to the cabin. If you see Mom and Dad, tell them I went for a walk around the decks.”
“But why can’t I go over there with you?”
I turn to look at my sister—a rose that has not bloomed, an eternal duckling. Her enormous glasses shine with the perpetual viciousness of hope.
“Because I don’t want you to be part of this. Now go.”
Alexandria nods without another word and pulls herself to her feet. As she passes the table where the girl in question is seated, she lingers, doing her best to offer them all a dirty look. Unfortunately, Alexandria’s dirty look is almost impossible to recognize, the cocked eyebrow obscured by the frame of her glasses, the upturned lip made unnoticeable by her unruly, glimmering teeth. She passes the table and hurries out through the swinging dining room door, and as she goes, I realize so does most of my nerve. But I have made my younger sister a promise. I stand, gathering my courage, and step toward the large circular table. I do not hurry. I take as much time as is humanly possible to cross the dining room, which only a few hours from now will be converted into a dance club. By the time I am close, the girl and her younger sister are already excusing themselves, and then they have disappeared somewhere behind the doors leading to the lower decks. I pause, wondering what my next move ought to be. I try not to flare my nostrils as I pass the rest of her family, two brothers—who might be twins—engaged in feral sword play with dull butter knives, the mother looking drunken and sedate, the father monstrously stabbing at his giant teeth with a golden toothpick. When I look over, I see the spot where the girl had been sitting at the table. There, on her plate, are a number of words spelled out in what appears to be ketchup, a single phrase which reads, G—el—Seymour, but suddenly my view is blocked and I am unable to read the entire message. For some reason what I discover surprises me, and I crash into the swinging doors before I collect myself and stumble out.
So why am I such a coward, someone may ask? Why am I afraid of a girl who just so happens to be pretty? Why, when I possess a knowledge of some of the finest, most exact words in the English dictionary, do these same expressions so often disappoint me? I roam the upper decks of the ship for a long time, pondering these uncertainties. I am frantically avoiding a return to our tiny cabin where I will have to explain to my younger sister why I have failed, why I do not love her enough to do this one small selfless thing, why I appear to be so knowledgeable and wise and contented, with a new haircut and extensive vocabulary, when really, deep down, I am as unsure as I have ever been, which is precisely when I collide with the exact person I have been too afraid to face.
At the end of a curving hallway, I bump into the girl in question as I open the door to a narrow stairway: She is there busily scratching something into the flaking white paint of the bulkhead with a black ballpoint pen. I trip over her foot, barely catching myself against the cold metallic railing. I am so surprised that she is there before me, standing alone, that I am unable to do anything at first but thoughtlessly apologize.
“If you’ll beg my pardon,” I stammer. “It was all my fault.”
“You really should look where you’re going,” she says, without heat or anger. She is just as embarrassed as I am. She quickly adjusts her left gold-colored flip-flop, which has come off in the struggle.
“I’m sorry, I was only . . .” and then I reach for something, anything, to momentarily detain her. “Do you happen to know where the observatory deck is by any chance?”
The girl carefully brushes her fingers against her bangs in a gesture that reveals exactly how lovely she is. “I don’t know,” she says wearing a meek smile, a smile that reveals an astonishing dogtooth jutting above her pink bottom lip. “I haven’t been there yet.”
“I don’t think we’ve been introduced,” I say, extending a hand. She takes it bashfully and seems to smile in an entirely different way this time, with the faint timidity of a thoughtful blush. She is eighteen or nineteen years old, I guess. She is in a blue skirt with a sporty sailor top. She is on vacation with her family and exactly as bored as I am. Why couldn’t we be friends? I immediately begin to imagine busy afternoons of shuffleboard and snorkeling, of meeting her parents and younger siblings, of introducing her to Alexandria to smooth over what has just been one unfortunate mistake. Intent on making her acquaintance, I decide to continue with the standard introductions as confidently as I can.
“I’m Josh,” I offer a little too quietly.
“Sabine,” she says, and the name, when it is sounded, is like a tiny bird passing through the wind. The way she says her name makes me doubt almost everything about myself. I continue to nod, wondering what I should say next, still shaking the girl’s tiny hand. She gently lets go of my palm and fingers, then glances around for the quickest exit, which is a pair of elevators directly behind me.
“It was nice meeting you,” she says.
“If I may ask, are you on the ship with your friends? Part of winter break?”
“No. I mean yes, I’m on a break from school. But I’m with my family.”
I see her eyebrows flatten as she nods once more and then begins to move toward the elevators.
“Just going for a stroll then?” I ask, moving along beside her.
“I guess. I was looking for the dance club.”
“I think it’s in the same place as the dining room. I think they just move the tables away. It’s kind of funny to think of it being a dance club, when only a few hours earlier there was a bunch of old people there waiting in line at the buffet.”
My remarks are met with a candid indifference.
“Are you in college?” I try.
“No,” she says.
She nods. “But I’m going to Vassar next year.”
“Wow, that’s great. I’m at Princeton right now.”
“Yes. If you ever want to talk, about college I mean, it can be a difficult transition to make. I’ve noticed that—”
When we climb into the narrow elevator, I watch as she quickly lifts the black pen in her hand to scribble another, nearly indecipherable message. Get well, Seymour! it reads. I squint and see the same words, the ones penned in ketchup on her plate, the ones she might have been dotting in the air on the badminton court that very afternoon. When the elevator doors slide open at the next deck, the girl hops out and I follow, still unsure of what I am going to say or do. I catch up with her and ask in a confidential tone: “Who is Seymour, if I may ask?”
“You just wrote something. Get well, Seymour! it said.”
“It’s just a joke.”
“Oh. I’m afraid I didn’t get the joke.”
“Seymour is our bird. We had to leave him at home.”
“He’s an African gray parrot. He’s almost a hundred years old. He was my grandfather’s; he actually left him to us in his will. My sister Jess and me, we have this game every time we go on vacation. We leave messages for Seymour, because once, when we went to the Bahamas, he got out of his cage and snuck out through the trash chute and broke his wing. He was trying to follow us. We were lucky, though, because the maintenance man found him. But every time we go somewhere, he ends up getting hurt.”
“He came down with a cold or something before we left. My father said it was just psychosomatic.”
“I didn’t know that parrots could get colds.”
“They can. They’re just like people really. The older they get, the more allergies and junk they can have. Once, the last time we went on vacation, we came back and he cried. My mother said Seymour was so happy that he actually started crying.”
As we make our way down the corridor to where the sound of out-of-date pop hits blare loudly, I see a line of seniors in bright pastel cruise wear waiting to enter.
“Some dance club,” the girl mutters in disappointment, changing her mind. She turns and I follow her once more back toward the elevators. She stops, darting quickly down a narrow hallway, to scribble another quick message in black ink. When the girl is finished with her note, she hurries off once again.
“There’s a good place,” she says, pointing to a corner where the crown molding creates a perfectly ornate frame. “I can’t reach,” she says, stretching on tiptoes. “Would you mind?”
I nod, then take the pen from her balmy hand and scribble as quickly as I can, “Get well, Seymour!” I add a large, jagged exclamation point as a flourish and hand the pen back to the girl, who nods at the message in appreciation.
“I have an idea,” she whispers.
“Let’s go do the whole upper deck. When Jess gets up in the morning, she’ll be totally amazed. We just need to find a pen for you . . . I know. We could ask the ship’s concierge.”
“That might look suspicious,” I say.
“You’re right. Look,” she says, leaning over, finding a black ballpoint left atop a silver room service tray. “Here you go.” Without another word, we make our way down the hallway, the girl stopping every few feet to jot the same message in miniscule letters over and over again. Following her lead, I go for the hard-to-reach spots, inscribing the words along the molding and on top of the doorframes of unsuspecting cabins. We do this for maybe a half hour or more. At one point, it is like a race to see how many either of us can scribble before reaching the end of the hallway. When I look up, both of us are red-faced, and the girl, Sabine, is laughing.
“You kind of remind me of someone I used to know,” she says, pointing at me with a grin.
“Someone famous?” I ask.
“No, a friend of mine. He’s a year older too. He’s at Brown. He took me to a dance once, but we . . .” Her words trail off and I notice that she’s blushing. “Do you want to go see what my sister Jess is doing?”
“Okay,” I murmur.
I would like to be able to say that in the next moment I immediately think of Alexandria, poor Alexandria, and the promise I have made, and the expression on her face, and the nascent tears brooking her red-rimmed eyes. I would like to say that in the very next moment I look the girl in her perfectly symmetrical eyes, in her perfectly freckled face, and ask her the question I’ve been too cowardly to ask, if she did indeed point at my little sister and make a rude comment and then begin laughing. But I do not. Instead I follow the shape of Sabine, her outline, her shadow, up into the C deck, then into an enormous pair of staterooms where her family is staying. I meet her mother and father who are not bores, but typical parents, except that her mother is an esteemed law professor and her father runs a string of newspapers. I allow them to teach me the card game Hearts. I find, to my great dismay, that none of the children are actually spoiled. They are polite and incredibly well-mannered and probably the most charming family in the entire world. The two younger twin brothers do impressions of black-and-white–era movie stars, Groucho Marx and Greta Garbo. The father talks about going on safari in Africa, where he refused to shoot the animals with anything but a high-speed camera.
During the card game, the mother touches my hand like we are already old friends, kindly asking me if I would like to discard. The younger sister utilizes perfect diction. She says a word I have never heard before: ersatz. From that moment on, I will think of that night whenever this particular word is used. Sabine, across the table, blinks at me every so often, smiling. I tell them all about my first year at Princeton and no one seems bored.
The family goes so far as to invite me to visit the Belizean port with them the following afternoon. I accept all of this without thought. By the end of the night, Jess, the younger sister, suggests we play a game of flashlight tag, using the lower decks, but her father cautiously intercedes, pointing at his silver watch with a slight frown. I realize then that it is already past midnight and that tomorrow when I see this delightful family, when I am alone with Alexandria, I will have to act like none of us have ever met. If they wave to me as I am sitting beside the pool, I will not be able to wave back. If the father calls my name from across the buffet line, asking me to join them, I will turn, my face red with shame, looking over at my younger sister with her two dishes of chocolate pudding, before escorting her to the most deserted, most remote dining room table.
At the end of that most lovely evening, I make my way back to the elevator, feeling more glum than glum, more lonely than lonely. I see one of Sabine’s messages in black ink scribbled on the wood paneling, then another in the hallway on the second deck, then a third along the upper deck’s railing. I search my pants pockets for the black pen and hold it in my hand, and for some reason I do not discard it on a stack of room service plates. I examine it and think of the way the girl might have looked with her timid eyes closed, what secrets she might have confided in me some days later. I stand beneath the opaque lighting with the stars gaping down at me, the sound of the great vessel’s engines rumbling like an unanswered argument, the noise ringing through the porthole window as I continue peering down at my feet for many, many, many minutes.
I do not know what to tell my sister. All I am able to think of are extravagant lies in which her poor self-image has been properly saved. When I return to the cabin, many hours later, the lights are out and Alexandria is lying in bed. She immediately sits up and switches on the bedside lamp, her face delicately aglow, her silver smile perfectly brilliant. I turn to her, unable to look, before she asks me to please tell her everything.
JOE MENO is a fiction writer and playwright who lives in Chicago. He is a winner of the Nelson Algren Literary Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Great Lakes Book Award, and was a finalist for the Story Prize. He is the author of multiple novels and short story collections including Hairstyles of the Damned, The Great Perhaps, How the Hula Girl Sings, The Boy Detective Fails, Tender as Hellfire, Demons in the Spring, and Office Girl. His short fiction has been published in One Story, McSweeney’s, Swink, LIT, TriQuarterly, Other Voices, Gulf Coast, and broadcast on NPR. His nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times and Chicago Magazine. He is an associate professor in the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago.
Posted: May 1, 2013
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