[Fiction] Kara Becomes Funny

Kara Becomes Funny

Chapter 1

Kara, Kara, Kara!

It’s raining and you’re getting ready to send your teenage daughter across the country to your mother-in-law’s house. You, Swiss Army Knife of women, Jill of all trades, the slicer and dicer of middle-aged moms thriving at the edge of the continent.

“Mom, do I have to wear shorts?”

“It’ll be 100 degrees there, baby.” You register the next complaint before it’s spoken. “But feel free to wear wool tights and a sweater like you do here in San Francisco. You do you, girl.” That last bit falls flat, even to your ears.

Your daughter pauses her packing and looks at you with the glassy agony of a rabbit. “You’re old, Mom. You know that, right?”

You know. You are the dream of 2 a.m. infomercials. Can it peel? Yes, especially in the summer when you forget the sunscreen. What’s the warranty? Lifetime—it’ll even mourn you when you die and organize your funeral. Will you love it? You’ll love it so much you’ll be able to hate it without feeling any guilt.

“I love you, too.” Your supersonic voice is so powerful, it can’t even be heard, Kara. Except, you understand that it still manages to be resented. Call now!

“100 degrees?! Is that, like, safe? Mom, where’s my spare chip?”

Kara, maybe you’re a bit rusty on the outside—a certain amount of gray hair and an aversion to jumping off of chairs in the last year—but you work just as promised. You are anything! You could do anything, they said. And look, here you are, being anything. Absolutely anything they want.

You take a deep breath and ignore the sound of your husband yelling at his band on the Collective Conscious VR down the hall in the living room. It’s a neat app, and convenient for you as someone who finds long-term marriage a hit-or-miss experience thus far. The app concept: upload your memories along with the rest of humanity and make nostalgia come alive. Your husband, Peter, is probably on stage in the app right now with the Cramps living his completely fictional—and completely customized—punk dream of the 1980s (but not really—it’s all a bit confusing). This reminds you.

You pull out your phone and make a note in your to-do app: Is Alzheimer’s if confuse new artificial memories w/ digital past-present? You sigh when you see the other reminder: to vote. Must you? Elections have become complicated in this brave new tech utopia. You shove your phone back into your sweatshirt pocket. You and only you hold down the present with your white-knuckle grip on reality, you completely real-time woman-knife. So, yes, you must. Ka-ra!

Lately, you’ve also begun wanting more reality for your only child, which is why you’re going along with Peter’s last-minute plan to ship Talia off to your mother-in-law for the summer. A truly terrible idea in every other way; best not to think about it too much. You’ll do your best to make it palatable, though, you steaming hot towel of love, Kara; one hundred degrees really is inhuman. “Remember, no chips. That’s the deal, bug.” 

Talia knows this, but she needs to freak out for a few more, delaying minutes. Again, hence the reason for the trip. “How am I going to handle being around my friends without it?” Her hands shake and you pick up the dropped crop top with the mushroom on it (yes—you’ve checked: not a sign of drug use, just bad taste). “Like, will we even like each other?”

It’s a valid question. Talia has a chip implant in the port behind her ear, “To help with her social anxiety.” Despite significant reservations, you’d caved to the idea a decade ago after it became clear that every other kid in Talia’s class at school had one, too. It was social suicide—and maybe actual suicide, the doctor more than hinted—for Talia to be off-network. What caring parent would say no?

So, no, you haven’t told anyone about this compulsory trip to reality. There’s a hint of abuse and legal action from the state when it comes to chip removal these days.

Peter, a blonde former lawyer by trade and fantasy musician in practice, screams one more time on the other side of your house, curses, stomps heavily down the hall, and joins you in Talia’s room, VR headset dangling in hand. He likes to lean on things now, and you find this both disturbing and surprisingly attractive. Is it a concerning lack of core strength or something he picked up during his new and improved Collective Conscious teenage years, you wonder? Does it matter?

His flavor of wisdom certainly hasn’t changed. “I used to hate my friends, too, when I was in high school, Tal.” Big claps, husband. “All without a fucking chip or phone or anything. Jesus Christ, being a teenager makes everyone want to kill themselves—so suck it up and deal with it, angel.” Peter says this with the pride of someone who has put black salt around the idea of therapy. 

It was, in fact, your defeated—and overpaid—marriage therapist who recommended Collective Conscious to him last year—that’s a whole other story. You clear your throat to lighten the mood but Peter doesn’t notice.

Peter is now banging his head backward against the wall, another, less attractive, new tic. “Finish packing, for God’s sake, Tal. I don’t want to hit rush hour traffic in the storm.” But he sort of does. The pain and thunder is the point for Peter, you’ve come to realize. He was a great litigator.

You have been to real-time personal therapy and may have a different perspective. “Tal, Phyn is going to be here in 20 minutes.” You remind your daughter of the deal sweetener: she gets to bring her best friend to Grand Rapids with her. Yes, the one she’s worried will hate her. It’s a reasonable concern. Talia and Phyn’s friendship has never been conducted without a screen in one of their hands. But surely you can fix that, too: the girls, thrown together into a sea of live, salting family is just the cure they both need, you’ve convinced yourself, you angel of wisdom. This, really, is why you’re supporting this ill-conceived scared-straight trip to your husband’s hometown (well, there’s that other thing, but nope, best not to think of that!). Kara, eyes on the prize! NOW!

Your daughter and husband watch you finish packing. Peter gets angry at the way you’re folding; something about the logic of the sequence and reaping what you fold. You bite back a retort about not seeing Jesus fucking Christ offering to do the laundry ever—Peter hates being reminded of his strict religious upbringing—and then wonder why. Kara, it would have been so funny, girl! True, but humor has never lived in your home, now, has it? 

Why is that, you pause to consider for a second as Peter leans even harder into the wall and closes his blue eyes, muttering what sounds like a curse. Good question, Kara! Your best one yet!

You glance up at your daughter’s relatively empty walls as you finish packing the toiletries, this time with a bit of uncharacteristic aggression. Well, hello, Kara XL! Until recently, you didn’t think the chip was much different than how you used to cover your drab bedroom walls in your suburban nowhere split-level with posters of teen heartthrobs and bands when you were young. Your hands linger on your daughter’s $300 plush mushroom stuffie on the top of the clothes pile (yes—another beloved mushroom). You’d once tried on the chip while Talia had forgotten it and had been confused to discover that it mostly just showed more people, not unlike your own childhood from another dimension: a more interested Peter living in one timeline, a bunch of imaginary grandparents, some cousins, and a talking dog sitting at the dinner table eating with Kara. The talking dog had even been surprisingly funny, now that you think about it. But the rest of it had given you vertigo: why would your daughter of all people want what you had tried so hard to escape?

You squeeze the ridiculous mushroom one last time. In retrospect, maybe you hadn’t chosen the best place to raise Talia. No one likes each other in San Francisco anymore, if they ever did. It’s too unfashionable to like yourself these days, which, it turns out, has consequences. So, maybe the Michigan trip is just what Talia needs—and you, you rusting sharp woman. Because you won’t be moving, Kara! You’ve built your marriage and career (such as it is) here. Your best friend lives here, sort of. You have your hobbies, the weather’s good. Plus, you hate moving on principle. Too much folding.

Ha! That was a good one, Kara!

Your sudden snort gives you strength, but startles your child. She’s starting to tear up and you’re probably not far behind, as tough as you are. 

Talia won’t let you hug her, but you want to at least talk to her and open up your heart in the way you used to do pre-chip—or did you? It’s been so long, it’s hard to remember. But an idea hits you sideways as you look up at the way her fingers are now clutching at her empty chip port; long, questionably pale but beautiful fingers you won’t see all summer. Something new. A little risky.

Get it, Kara, girl!

Your voice cracks as you begin, tentative. “Hey, have you ever heard the one about why the mushroom joined a punk band with a cat?”

You love this joke, though it’s been decades since you told it to anyone. Peter might not even know it, now that you think about it. Your courtship period had been brief and involved more contact high than deep conversation.

You’d had your reasons, Kara, you rebel!

Here comes the punchline. “Because it heard they were looking for someone who was a fun-gi and could handle the meowsic!” You laugh your head off.

And … pause for the applause, Kara!

Peter and Talia stare at you, hands silent. Peter narrows his eyes and Talia looks worried. Neither of them laughs. C’mon, people! It’s funny!

You stare back, still chuckling, holding on to hope a beat too long. “What?! Get it? Didn’t you get the joke?” It was a surgical direct hit that brought you right back to your own childhood dinner table and your father’s inappropriate jokes that nonetheless always made everyone laugh. Even when your mother was in the worst of her checked-out phases.

But Talia’s motions are twitchier than usual. You’ve frightened her, so she attacks with her heaviest ammunition. “Why would you think you could be funny, Mom?”

That slaps, and not in the way your daughter means when she uses that word now (which sounds so old-fashioned to you—there truly is nothing new under the sun except deeper levels of sunburn, you mean to tell her after this chip detox). You nonetheless force on your daughter the hug she will remember on the long plane flight to Detroit anyway, alone in her own skin and anxiety now. All two seconds of it.

Ha! Another good one! Of course you’re funny, Kara! You are the dream of the dusk of civilization! Look at you, girl! Your golf-course-hostage father would be proud—speaking of funny!

You laugh away the dark sting and tuck away your newest challenge for a moment along with your empty arms and the rest of the 15 years of impossible things that began the day you took that first pregnancy test. “Of course I can be funny. Call me when you land, bug.” Though you both know there’s no point since you’ll be tracking her phone the entire trip. Oh, your briny ocean of love overfloweth, Ka-ra! You, mother of this girl’s dreams!

“I hope my plane crashes.”

You freeze and grip your daughter, eyes flicking to her empty chip port in worry.

“I’m kidding, Mom.” But does she look like she's kidding?

“Are you sure, bug? That’s not funny.” You drop your hands slowly, at a guilty loss.

Peter to the rescue. “Tal, your mother doesn’t understand humor. Besides, you’re way too soft to hurt yourself. It takes,” Peter glances at his hands and then thinks better of it. You stiffen and peer more closely at your daughter. 

Too late. “Let’s go.” He grabs your daughter’s bag and marches out the door, Talia silently following, clutching her mushroom. 

She glances back at you and whispers, blinking away tears, “Dad’s right. You’re not even funny in my chip, Mom. I hate you.”

A sharp thing grinds awake inside of you, right next to the bubbling advice for Peter on the best place to park in the short-term lot and the image of your feet on the coffee table as you pop your first gummy of the night in a few minutes. The unfamiliar metal tickles, and you laugh and want to strangle it, anxiously competitive with this new high-stakes challenge: Become funny, or else.

Your wounded daughter stares at you one last time, daring you to save her or fight back, and then turns, shoulders slumped.

“I love you, too, bug,” you volley, but it’s not enough, as you expect. And then she’s gone, lost to the world that thinks you—Kara?!—can’t see the humor in life. Of course you can. Can’t you?

Game on, Kara, you domestic grand master cutlery! You have three weeks to become funny and win her back. Serve!

Chapter 2


After Talia and Peter leave, you are blissfully alone. The rain has become biblical and you are cozy inside with your tank of fish who peer at you from another, watery dimension.

Peter will go to a club after dropping Talia off at the airport, where he’ll play a gig with his undead band, half in and half out of Collective Conscious along with the audience. It’s unclear what year he’ll be in during the show (or now? How does that work exactly?). You rub your forehead. 

But that’s okay. You don’t need to know for the next few hours. He’s explained the latest, suspicious-sounding science on the inherent instability of space and time to you according to the best legal arguments working their way through the court system as part of the new federal habeas corpus update. So, he’s probably okay (maybe?), and he’s snug on your to-do list besides, knife lady. Enough. Enough about that problem, Ka-ra!

Right here and now, it’s time to get right with your very real self, Kara. Update your funny-ass self, you genius motherboard. Talia is going to come home new and improved, and you will be, too. Match point. Love-love. Sweat it.

The age of Kara, now always too old, except in her own mind! But you know what’s real, girl!

You take a quick selfie against the best lighting in the house and squint at the image, scrutinizing the quality of your skin, before deleting it, as is your smug, healthy habit learned the hard way. Claim the spotlight, Kara! You deserve it! In the zone.

Unlike your parents, there’s a rank busyness about you inside your outward graying brunette steadiness, like an electron. Zone, zone, zone! Hot yoga, yin yoga, flying trapeze, pilates, running, modern dance, painting, sculpture, singing, business classes, Buddhism, growing mushrooms (you snort in epiphany—is that where it came from?). Hell, you’d even been in a mildly successful band for a while in your 20s, when you were in your anger phase, playing sticks and singing backup for a hotter redhead with tattoos and a visible bra. Peter stood at the back of the room at your band’s shows in those years (and this was definitely in the past in the actual timeline, you mentally note with an acid laugh), hiding behind his third beer as you’d played songs that he later trashed to his friends at the law firm where you both worked. 

But he’d been all over you like a teenager afterward in the dark corner of the bar. It didn’t matter that he whispered the lead singer’s name and not yours back then, you remember wistfully. You’d liked the rush, the aggressive competition that you knew you’d won, his height, and the heat of the lights. The defiance. All the things you both loved about court, too, back then, before your job morphed into managing depositions of custom AIs by your own firm’s custom and ruthless AI. Right here, right now! You were no ordinary woman back then, even if you once overheard Peter telling someone that you were only an eight compared to the other women he slept with.

Kara, are you ready? Like he wasn’t, too! Okay, maybe he’d been a three disguised as a nine?

“Challenge accepted,” you whisper to no one in particular and everyone. You start on YouTube, as one does. You watch a few big-name stand-up comics, trying to decipher what they do. “What’s the magic, people?” You almost remember what it’s like to do a deposition live. You gave that up for a reason, Ka-ra! Ka-ching!

Twenty videos deep, you even get out your phone’s stopwatch to develop a theory about punchline timing. There’s nothing you can’t metabolize, you know. You’re an American success story that no one ever hears, this woman.

Don’t slow down, Kara!

Now there’s a video of students protesting an open mic night at NYU that you’re tempted to click on. The idealism—sort of!

Ah, those days. You also went to undergraduate at NYU—on partial scholarship—and had been to a few protests back then, too, though not for any altruistic reasons. No. Those were your days of Natalie and Kara, and your formerly glamorous roommate’s fervor for any picturesque and mildly subversive cause. Darling, eye-opening Natalie. Never kill the dream, Kara! Were you alive if you didn’t dream, however quietly?

Get to work, Kara! YouTube waits for no woman!

Even though he was from the Midwest, Peter was supposed to be a reward—a bow beau, you scribble and immediately cross out on your largely blank yellow pad of ideas. You unremarkable Floridian English major and failed lawyer. We’ll work on your puns, Kara! Nice try! Not that you ever slowed down working; the fear of living with your parents again had been plenty of motivation. You had once gotten high on the adrenaline of your pure attraction to Peter, the speed of his serrated typing and shouting in that office down the hall of that impressive law firm, back when you worked in offices. You could sand him down into the perfect personal baller, surely, even if your own dad and now-deceased mom suggested otherwise.

You fucking knife!

You put your feet on the couch and close your eyes, trying to remember those days, against your better judgment. Peter, who had been let go from that leathered law firm just before he could have made the big money, now spends his days doing sound editing for a company that makes instructional videos for large corporations. There is, unfortunately (fortunately?)  not much need for lawyers these days with AI, as he learned the hard way. This drop-out job gives him plenty of time to spend in Collective Conscious trying to redefine punk and, as he initially rationalized in his ocean of bitterness, plenty of time to spend with Kara in bed rekindling that old blowtorch burn they used to lose themselves in until someone got hurt. Though less and less often, Ka-ra! Nope, not a helpful thought process, Kara!

You open your eyes and squint at the fish, and they blur. Your head throbs a little.

Okay. So, it’s not a storybook romance. You aren’t PTA people. You live in a house that could use some repairs. You have no pets (fish don’t count), you vote but aren’t involved in any causes. And you had zero guilt putting Talia into private school; it was the only logical thing for a two-working-parent household. As it turned out, rebellion had become overrated to a woman whose parents were sun-burnt infants and a man whose every rage and hobby had an increasingly popular app that did it better. You failed out of marriage therapy. So, sure. The cocaine attraction to your husband has faded into the occasional zombie dance of two former addicts, but you’re comfortable in this white noise of inertia. Aren’t you, girl? Aren’t you?! Why are you thinking about this?!

Your phone dings with a series of texts from your daughter, that blurry bright spot in all this. 

Mom u no i h8 flying!!!!!! …

You read the whole litany of complaints and stare at the empty hall where your daughter left, accusatory, a few hours ago, and grab your head where it hurts. Yup, she hates you.

C’mon, it’s fixable, girl! Everything is fixable! Don’t stop, Kara!

What other choice is there? You type back soothing emojis (words are offensive now, according to Talia) and finish with YouTube and web searches on the art of comedy with renewed frenzy. You try writing a few sketches but get sidetracked, maybe a little frantic, picturing Peter and Talia’s faces every time you are inclined to hit save. Knock-knock jokes, funny faces at yourself, different voices (was that a Disney princess or villain? What’s the difference, you mock the fish and tell them they look fat, then offer them a Tab just to mess with them—still got it, girl!). 

Kara takes another gummy; this one is a stronger dose. Yes, that’s the way, baller! You do your losing Vogue dance competition video from when you were little and cry a little, but not in any serious way. Because it was so good. “So good!” you yell at the fish over and over. Goddamn fish. Come on, Ka-ra! Tears aren’t funny! Do it for your daughter! Do it for the woman who used to turn (eight out of ten) heads! Provoked, you instead find Talia’s old plastic tiara and, becrowned, desperately act out the scene from Macbeth that you had to memorize in 11th grade—your partner had been an Adonis (he’s also dead now, and hadn’t paid any attention to you back then either). You try to put together a different joke. The pencil breaks.

Shit, this is hard, Kara. Why is this so hard this time, Dr. Shiny Fancy Knife?

You try again but get distracted chasing down the perfect double entendre that somehow segues into a sobbing Sinead O’Connor ballad. You sing that one loudly like a grenade and throw off the tiara—which reminds you of some other songs, and soon you’ve cranked up the stereo to play your favorite hits until the fish tanks shake and your pencil breaks, and you scream and scream and scream.

The remaining pencils roll under the couch for good and the fish gloat.


Chapter 3


A few hours later, you have to call Natalie, your aforementioned sylph-like college best friend who recently re-located to Piedmont in the East Bay from San Francisco (you’ve been too pissed about this to call her for a while—not that either of you acknowledge it in your occasional text). You want to give your stand-up routine a test run because, clearly, it’s ready now. Yes, it is, girl! You womanly whirl! The empty tin of gummies and nail scratches on your face say so, and the fish are agitated, glugging. They absolutely hate you and the feeling is mutual.

What time is it, by the way, Kara?

A dial tone. “Hello?”

“Hey, Natalie, pretend I’m on stage at a comedy club and tell me what you think …”

You clear your throat and dive right in.

“So, yeah, anyone here like punk? Yeah, me—me too. So, yeah, I recently went to a punk rock show, mostly because I've concluded that the hottest guys are always in punk bands. What? My genius husband was in a punk band! Anyway, it's like they have this secret pact with the universe: Join a punk band, and you get a lifetime supply of cool points and smoldering looks, you know? Why do you think I married him? What, you know you were thinking it!

Anyway, so at this show, I tried to impress this punk guitarist. Beautiful guy, kind of hairy in all the right places, you know what I mean? Just like, leaning there. Yeah, you know exactly what I mean now, don’t you?! Don’t you, ladies?! Jordan fucking Catallano but, like, punk.

Right, so obviously I go up to him and say, ‘Your fingers move on those strings like my cat when it's trying to catch a laser pointer—fast and slightly confused.’ But—and this is so weird!—you know, he just stared at me, like I’d just asked him to lick his own asshole. Like, did you not hear my compliment, my man? But he just stared and stared like I had just asked him for the recipe for cat litter. And this is when I finally realized that punk guys may be hot but they ain’t exactly ... you know in the head. Because instead of taking the compliment, he’s all, ‘Are you calling me a pussy, lady?’

Yeah. Well, I divorced him and got a cat two weeks later.”

Ha ha ha! You killed it, Kara!

Natalie sounds non-plussed and a little groggy but not entirely disinterested in this joke. The key qualities of a best friend at this stage of life, you’ve learned. She laughs for a moment, except it quickly turns into choking, and you have to sit there listening to the sound of coughing, water running, and her swallowing something on the other end instead of the praise you expected. 

Finally, your friend’s raspy ex-smoker’s voice: “A pussy joke. Classic. Now, remind me, why are we doing this, Kara? At this time of night.” 

You hook on to the default to the plural, and your voice is breathy but high from the adrenaline rush. “It’s good, right? Talia told me I wasn’t funny. No, that I couldn’t be funny.” You laugh at the post-gummy absurdity.

There’s another joke here, Kara! You have more material, after all! Do it, do it! Why not? Now!

There is a crash that you ignore on Natalie’s end. Some shouting, but she’s undisturbed. “Huh. Any particular reason, Kar? Because you know I peed myself laughing at you one night in, uh, 2007.” Your friend is fully awake now thanks to whatever she’s swallowed. She doesn’t sleep much, your Natalie, and besides, she works an early shift, so it’s, practically afternoon in her world, you rationalize.

“You were pregnant.”

Natalie sighs like a fairy princess, “I was.” Natalie had trouble conceiving and birthing her children, and it had been a whole thing. “But so, what’s her reason today?”

Take a breath, Kara!

You try to sound like you’re not over-excited to be asked as you fumble for your phone and read the most recent text you received from your feminist daughter. Yes, you also blur your eyes to avoid seeing all the ones from your job and the overdue bills—a critical mothering technique. You can deal with reality in the morning, as you always do, you perfect tin soldier. (Wait—why is there light coming from the window, Kara? What time is it, knife? Nope, ignore that! It’s just a siren.

You clear your throat and read Talia’s text extra loud, already confident in your friend’s sympathy.

“‘Mom - also u know jokes from whyt women r inherently like bad because ur too, like, privileged. U should only laugh at the jokes of people less privileged than u, fyi. But only if theyre like ok with it obvs Did u pack my phone charger? & did u tell grandma I h8 carrots yet???? Her food is like so traumatic!!!!!’”

Natalie laughs and you do, too. Humor runs in your family, obviously. “Deep enough to be almost invisible, Kara!" Natalies teases. "Remember when your dad bought that condo in the Mexican golf course run by a cartel and tried to ask you for money to cover the, uh, extra fees? Hmm?” Natalie has always been dry and a little mean.

You’re nonetheless gasping and leaking tears now from this release of humor; you might truly be the apex predator of your family gene pool, even if you’ll always be the deviled egg to Natalie’s shark course, three stars. “Yeah, I know. And see? I’m funny. I made you laugh! Talia’s going to love it!” 

A triumph! Kara is a phenomenon! Your heart is racing from triumph! You haven’t felt like this in months since—!

Another crash on the other end. A little kid cries and someone starts cursing about being woken up, but Natalie whispers away the problem, then sighs and focuses on Talia’s text, back on the phone. There’s a sound of a slamming door. “Is this kind of texting what I have to look forward to, by the way?”

She has no idea, girl! Inspiration strikes Kara. She cracks her neck, crumples up her paper, and stalks to the mic. 


“Uh, well, did I tell you about the chemistry club thing, Nat?” Your voice wavers.

There’s some more shouting behind a hand over the phone, another door slams, and then. “Hold on, let me get to the bathroom. I wanna hear this.”

 The spotlight whines and sparks.

Sure, you’ve probably had too many gummies, Kara, but it’s a funny story. Absolutely prime material, for sure, you insist through your mind haze and vague memories of your dad’s voice when you’d told him no.

You have to tell someone, Kara! Why haven’t you told anyone a joke THIS GOOD?! The floodgates have opened.

You tell Natalie the setup: When Talia started high school, you sat her down at the kitchen table to give her a talk. Your child’s principal had sent around the script of said talk and required you to sign a form saying you’d share it with your child before Talia began accessing the school’s coveted college counseling program the following week—an absolute requirement given the impossibility of university admissions these days. It was a no-brainer, right?

“Okay, bug. I’ve—I’m proud of you for gotting—getting into this, uh, high spool—school,” you’d begun. You’d checked your notes and squinted at the oddly formatted text and the surprising number of grammar and spelling errors just in that first line, but pushed on. The school had a coat of arms, after all. “But here’s the ting—thing. Learning is important, but from now on school is going to be a rat race to get into the most inpressive—impressive college, and the whole thing is performative bullshit, Talia." That last bit, at least, was spelled clearly. "If you got—get caught up in that shit, you’ll be killing yourself for nothing. Bad vibes.” You squint again. “It’s giving … late-stage capitalism?”


Talia had looked nervous and you had wondered about the wisdom of that last line, but you reminded yourself what was at stake and that truly impressive school building full of all that impressive old wood. College, Ka-ra. C to the O to the L to the steady employment for your baby! Can’t rely on a husband, clearly! It’s not like everyone else wasn’t complaining about the economy all the time, anyway, even if it was odd for a school. Well, not that odd? Education had become so much more, uh, big picture, you’d long since noticed. But this was a good school. Everyone said so.

So, as you explain to Natalie now, you didn’t mince words with Talia—or take any breaths as you read on, faithfully continuing to correct the grammar mistakes as you went. “You either come out and make money because your family is already pig—rich, and you were always going to make filthymoney.”

“Daddy’s family wasn’t rich. Or yours,” Talia had whispered, toying with the strings of her mushroom hoodie. 

You had ignored her inconvenient comment. Instead, you’d plowed on, editing even more heavily. Calling the wealthy people who bankrolled the private school “pigs” had seemed a little extreme, even if you weren’t supposed to like the police anymore. Your mother had always hated the police, too, but everyone (but you) knew she was crazy in your small suburb. “‘Or, you come out and get, uh, r—roped into a job where you make less money than the rich family people but still enough to fool you into working all the time and having no life—until they, uh, f—suck you dry because they know that you’re either too retar—gullible to notice that that life is no reward or you’re too scared to admit that everything you thought was the right way to live was total, uh, okay, bullshit.’” Here, you had paused, sweating, and wondered what you were reading, for real this time. Had other parents also actually read this to their kids? Like, all of them?

Meanwhile, Talia had recoiled. You were being far too sincere. Showing doubt about the narrative. Oh, no no no, Kara!

So, you then made the mistake of trying to improvise, putting down the sheet in favor of skipping over the last three pages, but you knew the script (you reading rainbow electron, master mom!). The school had probably asked a student to draft the text and forgotten to proofread it. Always looking for the workaround, Kara, girl! “So, bug, then you’re 40 and finally notice that you’re too successful to realize you’ve failed. Completely, and utterly failed. Because you have a hard job. And I don’t want that for you. I chose differently, and you can be successful like me, too, by, uh, not trying to be, uh, successful. It’s, uh, the right thing to do.” You had belatedly realized that your advice made no sense and left you looking like an absolute fool. Just like your mother, Ka-ra! You don’t actually believe any of that, right, even if it is kind of punk? Wait—is it?

Kara, epic parenting! Your daughter had been white as a sheet, eyes flicking from invisible guest to invisible pet, anywhere but you.

Natalie snorts on the other end of the phone in the present day, covering a yawn. Her almost approval is like a drug for you. Yes! Keep going, Kara! Why haven’t you told anyone this story?

Really, why?

“So, Peter sauntered into the room, too, during that school conversation with Talia and leaned against the fridge,” you tell Natalie now, quickly before she finishes her yawn. 

It had been the beginning of his leaning phase and you were inclined back then to forgive him almost anything with that new angle to his delicious, former squash-player hips. You’d always loved the wealthy brutality of squash, kind of punk, kind of rich.

“Great pep talk, babe. You also going to tell her about the miracles of childbirth while you’re at it?”

You had laughed, temporarily distracted by your husband’s forearms and hip bones, but then snapped back to the task as Talia stumbled out of her chair, and began slinking out of the room. She’d been doing more of that lately, and it was a little too magical for your tastes, even back then.

“It’s fine, Dad. Whatever.” 

Maybe if you’d been funny about it, Kara! This isn’t just a hobby, girl, you know! Try HARDER!

“So, the conversation had been a complete failure,” you admit to Natalie, remembering your task. 

“Uh, yeah?” Natalie sounded concerned. “That’s, um, some advice, though of course it’s important to support social justice.” Natalie was a private nurse for the extremely wealthy, of which she used to be one, not that you were allowed to mention that now, though you kind of wanted to.

“I know, right?! So, so important.” You’d nonetheless been tempted to send an email to the school. And ruin your daughter’s chance at college, Kara?! Exactly. No such email was sent.

“Anyway, Nat. The important thing …” What was the important thing, Kara? “Right. The important thing was that Talia had at first seemed relieved to avoid joining any clubs at school and spend most of her time at home on her phone. And I felt gratified that maybe I’d done something right, you know?”

“Uh, Kara …”

You clear your throat and ignore Natalie’s skepticism, in favor of being dazzling. “Except, eventually,” you put extra emphasis on the second syllable, “Talia started to get interested in her chemistry class and—get this—even joined the chemistry club! So, it all worked out, right?” You’re so good at performing chipper on demand, Ms. Thing!

Natalie snorts on the other end of the phone, remembering your once brief excitement about joining her on the pre-med track at NYU (you’d both only lasted a year). “I remember when you told me about that,” Natalie snorts again, inadvertently also reminding you of her subsequent cocaine days and long rehab journey. You smirk.

You start pacing now as you tell your best friend the rest of the (ill-advised?) joke (but is it a joke, girl? Kara? Is it?). You’re glowing in the reflection of the windows as you perform now. The fish are rapt.

Kill it, Kara! This story needs to be heard!

“So, Peter and I were happy that Talia was following her own path, as any parent—any good parent—would be.” This is a dig at Natalie for her tone a moment ago, naturally. And maybe your own mother, according to your therapist. “And we encouraged her interest in the chemistry club—but not too much, like some of the other, you know, uptight Moms.” You let that word hang in the air for a beat until Natalie clears her throat and laughs in that throaty way she has.

“But then—get this—Peter overheard Talia during one of her club Zoom meetings talking about whether it was, and I kid you not—racist to call black holes ‘black holes,’ and whether she and the rest of the deadly earnest white children in her little microcosm (you had written down those exact words you liked them so much) should, and I quote, ‘reach out to black astronomers to ask or, like, if it was even more racist to expect a black astronomer to make time for their question.’”

Natalie bursts out laughing in the here and now. “Oh no, she did not!” 

See, Kara, you’re damn funny! Comic fucking genius!

“Yup!” you wind up, bristling for a moment at the unexpected volume of Natalie’s laugh (is it possible to have too much laughter as a comedian, you wonder while looking pointedly at the fish), “there had been a fight at dinner that night of the black holes,” you tell your friend even more loudly (she’s not laughing at you, Kara!). “It was grilled cheeses and smoothies, in case you’re wondering.” You hate cooking, though no one has noticed. Including your best friend, who always used to eat your precious leftovers without asking in college, not that you ever complained, content as you were to feed your ego in her shadow.

You switch voices and narrate the argument. “‘Space isn’t racist, Talia,’” Peter had yelled, suddenly a prosecutor in front of a criminal and not a fantasy teen guitarist once again.

You try to make this as vivid as possible for Natalie: the way Talia’s eyes had flicked to one of her invisible dinner guests and then down into her pulverized smoothie. You do her voice, too. “‘That makes, like, no sense, Dad. Racism is structural, even at the quantum level.’” 

As she laughs, you tell Natalie how Talia had nodded at someone and made fists in her lap. “‘Like, how do you even know that a neutron doesn’t look different when a black scientist is looking at it than a white one? Or, like, indigenous astronomers, you know?’” Talia’s hands had been shaking by then and there was a flush to her cheeks; she had rolled her eyes at someone next to you but soldiered on. Your brave girl!

Natalie cackles in the here and now. The volume grates a little, but you press on.

“It didn’t get better from there,” you tell Natalie, a little resentfully. Don’t stumble now, Kara!

Your voice hiccups for a moment but then you’re blithely back in action. “Peter had pounded his hand on the table and rolled his eyes,” you describe. You natural performer, Ka-ra! “‘Because it’s cosmic matter, Tal! Cosmic matter doesn’t change just because I have less melanin!’” 

“He’d been growing quicker to anger after experiencing some creative conflicts with his semi-real dead band,” you explain to Natalie this evening (morning? Was the sun coming up?), pausing just long enough to let the irony land.

“He’s still doing that AI vanity band shit?” Natalie asks with a puff of indignation. So what if you don’t like her tone, Kara?!

“Yup?” You continue the story with a fake laugh. An old habit. “Anyway, it’s about to get seriously funny, Natalie! So, hold on.” 

But you have lost the thread, haven’t you? Ka-ra! This will not do, you pathetic amateur! Cut it UP!

“Where was I? Oh, yeah.” You resume the story by sheer force of will. That’s right! No one stops this blooded knife! You are the goddamn high lord of humor, Kara!

“So, Talia had pushed away her sandwich in disgust,” you continue narrating with a little more edge in your voice. You’re good at your daughter’s voice. “‘God, dad, villain origin story much?’”

“So, then Peter pushed his plate away, too, but hard enough to send the bread flying off the table and onto the floor.” You imitate his voice, too, though perhaps with less finesse. “‘Oh, my fucking god! Give me my guitar and get out of here, Talia Marion Jensen! I can’t believe we pay people money to teach you this bullshit!’” 

(Before she can say anything, you make a point to tell Natalie in the here and now that you were too busy picking up the cooking you hate so you didn’t give him his guitar; he grabbed it himself. Strictly speaking, you don’t also need to add that the sight of him with the guitar was a turn-on, but you do anyway. Pointedly so. Natalie’s husband is stumpy, works in finance, and smells like milk.)

The chord Peter had then strummed that night was aggressive and out of tune, you add to be kind.

“‘See?! An A chord is an A chord no matter who plays it, Talia! Sound waves and cosmic matter don’t fucking change!’” Peter had strummed again, even more violently. “‘See?! Shit, that’s really out of tune!’ He was standing and leaning forward at Talia now.”

You narrow your eyes and mime all this to your aquatic audience, imagining Natalie’s look of approval. “So, there we were, Nat, my daughter staring right past him, quite possibly at a talking fucking dog and my husband maybe convinced he was a punk star. And you know what she said? She was all, ‘Like you know anything about reality, Dad.’”

Bada bing bada BOOM!

Chapter 4


“Oh, Kara,” is the only sound from Natalie.

You know that voice. You really know that voice. Distant relatives had called after the final news about your mom and used that voice.

“I—uh—you know what, Nat? I need to go,” you mumble. “Bathroom emergency. Sorry! Love you, Nat. You’re the best,” Your words rush out. Natalie was not the best. “Love to Paul!” That milk troll.

“Love you, too, Kara. By the way, I want to tell you about this psychedelic  that I recently tried that could really help …”

But you hang up before you have to listen to any more words of Bay Area wisdom. There was a reason that you and Natalie hadn’t been in touch since the night of the grilled cheese.

You bombed. Amateur night, Ka-ra!

And you hadn’t even told Natalie the worst of what had happened. Now THAT would be funny, Kara! Funnier than the threatening emails you now get from the cartel and your dad. Pictures of guns.

You lie down on the floor in front of the fish tank and close your eyes, remembering, as your fingers automatically grope for the pencils stuck just out of reach under the couch.

You and Peter had gotten into it the day after the black hole incident. Peter had been hurt.

“I don’t understand her generation, Kara!’”

You had been amused at his sudden interest in parenting and had run your fingers through his golden blonde hair, like old times. Despite everything, you could never give up this man; this nine, not three. What man didn’t act like a boy sometimes, Ka-ra?! Yours was just more upfront about it! You made your choice, girl.

“What’s so hard about it, Peter? They were raised by our generation, and look at us.” Your voice was low and languid, tired after an extra brutal digital deposition. “We’ve never cared about the world more than we’ve cared about being, you know, cool.” You dropped your hands to run your fingers along his forearms toward his hands and around the leather bracelets he always wore around the scars on his wrists, hopeful that this might turn into more for a change.

But Peter’s eyes had bugged out as he abruptly shouted. “I cared! I cared too fucking much, Kara! And look what it did to me! Look what those delusions turned me into!” He had shoved the mottled insides of his wrists in your face and then grabbed your face—hard, too hard—before just as suddenly letting go and stumbling back like he’d burned his hands.

“What in the—“ It had all been so quick, you hadn’t even had time to react.

Then, as if nothing had happened, Peter had collapsed onto the couch and grabbed for his guitar again, strumming what sounded a lot more like a hymn than a punk song. His voice was a lifeless monotone like he was reading from a brochure. “You know perfectly well that you can’t dismiss the crazy, Kara. You have to give it structure and let it,” now he was singing (what the fuck?), “make muuuuusic. The art will sort out the real from the unreaaaaallll.” 

He had hummed and strummed another A-chord, singing, as you rubbed the raw skin on your cheeks, unsure what to do, unsure what had just happened. He’d never hurt you before. Never. That, at least, was absolutely real.

He was still singing, so you focused on that to steady yourself. “Lead me from the Real to the unreal: The Upanishaaaaads.”

“Uh, isn’t it the unreal to the Real?” you’d asked without thinking (you’d also minored in Eastern Religion in college—there had been a hot guy), and then flinched. He wasn’t supposed to be someone who’d hurt you. He was going to protect you from … Was your daughter safe? Oh, God. Your daughter.

But Peter had ignored your comment and then it was like the whole thing never happened.

You had tried to put your hand on Peter’s guitar and get him to stop and look at you for a second. “Peter? Peter?! Do you hear me? We need to be on the same page about what to do for Talia.” You tried to put it in terms he would understand. “There’s no more alternative music, Peter. There’s no punk anymore, no real alternative culture or—or, like anonymous darkness to find yourself in. No back of the club. Nothing real, so we—”

And then Peter had suddenly been in your face, screaming again. “I know, Kara! I fucking know that all they’ve got is that demonic little neon Roy G Biv instead of real music … I’m getting replaced at work by a digital demon! AGAIN! I know it’s not REAL, Kara! We’re in a black hole—the fucking irony—of any color but Roy Fucking G Biv! And I—I HATE the fucking Violet Femmes!” He had been keening by then, like a dog caught in a trap, and had pushed past you and slammed his hand into the wall, briefly flashing the scars on his hands and wrists that you preferred not to think about too much, before storming out of the house.

It had been totally punk, Ka-ra!

“Violent Femmes,” you’d whispered to yourself in the room alone, shaking. The metal inside you churned, furiously reforming.

When you woke up the next morning, you’d found Peter perched on the side of your bed, watching you, but not really. He looked like he’s been there all night. You’d frozen.

“I’m sorry, Kara” He’d pinched his nose, which had always looked like he’d survived some schoolyard beatings earlier in life, but in a good way. He did look sorry. “I’ll go out tomorrow to buy Talia a graphic novel explaining punk, including the role of my band. You know, the real life. I do want to understand her. But she’s got to learn some real fucking science, too. And music. It’s the only way to make sense of the world, you know? Logic and punk. I’ll teach her some squash. And start looking for a new job. There’s got to be jobs in law I can still get.” 

“Definitely,” your voice croaked out. What was the harm of a little falsehood if it made people feel better? Ka-ra!

And then Peter had rubbed the scars on his hands absentmindedly, punched the pillow next to your head lightly (you flinched), kissed your cheek, and left again just before your phone alarm started going off. You, the iceberg that would fell a tanker.

Brr, Kara! Look at you float, girl!

Little numb Kara, unwitting player in the world’s worst reality show: all you could think about as you got dressed to go to work that morning—what else was there to do?—was that: HE WASN'T GOING TO REMEMBER TO BUY THE BOOK HIMSELF. Of all the things you knew and could control from that conversation, this was it: he just wasn’t. Don’t think about the rest.

The jokes roll on and on, Ka-ra!

So, that meant that you had to buy the book. The non-existent book about your husband’s non-existent version of a real band. Because now you couldn’t just buy any punk history, Kara. Talia really thought—still thinks—he was in a band. And you couldn’t leave Talia hanging. Not if you were going to fix this.

Keep on laughing, girl!

So, yeah, you’d paid Collective Conscious $2,500 for a last-minute fictional book all about Peter’s seminal, non-existent band to save your daughter (and husband) from the lack of reality.

Ka-ra! She blends, too! Buy now!

You close your eyes for a moment, laughing to yourself darkly as you remember. You had fixed things. You had made everything okay—hadn’t you? One big joke.

Well, you imagine telling Natalie, the day after the fake book from Collective Conscious arrived in the mail, you and Peter had both smiled to see Talia reading the thing and looking a little dreamier than usual. Though, her only comment when you’d asked her what she thought was, “Slay.” 

You laugh harder for a moment because you have to, and then go silent, Natalie’s face fading.

The joke isn’t over, Kara!

Nope. Now, you roll on the floor and haul yourself up and into the bathroom down the hall. The woman in the mirror talks to herself, imagining herself on stage. She never stops smiling. You want to like her. Her story is so funny! She’s even kind of beautiful, in a deceptively wholesome and slightly frantic way.

“So, uh, yeah, one week later, I found the book in the recycling,” you pause, wincing at the brightness of the lights around the mirror, “and a half-made poster for a petition to protest white supremacy in the school’s astronomy curriculum in Talia’s room.”

You hear your imaginary audience begin to laugh in this newest dream. It feels unexpectedly amazing, Kara!

“No, no, wait. You have to hear the rest, folks!” Here it is: the big punch, Kara! Lean into it, girl! 

The lights whine. “And since my daughter couldn’t understand the relationship between punk and cosmic dust, Peter shipped her off to his mom’s house to go to a local science camp he loved as a kid. Except, it closed 20 years ago, I discovered last week. So, now she’s going to Bible camp (Grandma Jensen insisted), and Peter will shit a brick if he finds out. It was the one thing he told me was off-limits before we got married. ‘No church, Kara. I’d rather kill myself first.’” 

Ba-da-bing! BOOM! BOOM!

You burst out laughing one last time, absolutely delighted with yourself as you grin at the sliced, diced, and corkscrewed woman in the mirror. The one crying with so much fear.

Oh, Kara! Never read the comments section, girl!

“Now who’s funny?”

Chapter 5


Within 48 hours, you are the star pupil of a washed-up comedian in an online class of two. Of course you are, Kara!

And let's talk about punk fashion,” you mug over Zoom, face framed so artfully by the blindingly bright fish tanks. This is your new, best joke. “Chains, spikes, and leather jackets—it's like the uniform for the rebellion against ... zippers and comfortable clothing. I don't get it. I tried to wear a leather jacket once, but I ended up sweating so much; I looked like I just finished a hot yoga session instead of a punk concert. Maybe punk rock is secretly sponsored by deodorant companies?

Ba-da BING, girl!

There’s a certain amount of coughing and one weak laugh in your little speaker at your joke. Your fellow classmate never turns on his camera, so it’s hard to interpret the sound, but you choose to take the compliment. Ka-ra, live around the city!

Your teacher clears his throat. “Yes, that’s cute, Kara. Nice, uh, timing. But you’re not taking risks, my real-ass queen.” You had selected the “Extra Raw” option when you’d signed up for the class, slightly nostalgic. “You have to stop hiding behind the, uh, safe stuff.” A complete switch in voice tone. “Yes, can I help you?” Your instructor drinks a lot and appears to be at a second job.

You find his first point irritating (among other things), but continue to appreciate the price and level of personal attention of this class considering the precarious state of your bank account and Peter’s recent revelation about his layoff. You certainly are taking all kinds of risks, even if Mark, the instructor, doesn’t know it. My broke-ass king!

Your daughter texted that morning that Phyn had fled Michigan after a run-in with Peter’s mom and the camp director about Phyn’s ever-changing pronouns (you may have misrepresented the nature of the camp to Phyn’s parents to make this plan come together—but your intentions were so good). It was clear that Talia blamed this on you, too. 

Worse, Peter seems to have stopped looking for a new job altogether. You also had to remind him to eat yesterday because he lost track of time. You try not to think about it, but you do actually still need a second income if you want to survive in San Francisco (and the cartel tracking you down?). But things are dissolving everywhere you look. You almost forgot to feed the fish that morning after trying to wake Peter up in bed. You glance nervously back and are met by beedy stares.

On with it, Ka-ra, girl! You know what you need to do!

That sharp thing inside you itches to prick this improvement montage and move on to your inevitable triumph. Your completely improved family, inside and out. Maybe a better pet; this thought prompts a pointed stare at the plug powering the fish tanks. That’s the spirit, girl! Cue that soundtrack!

“Fine, Mark and, uh,” you don’t know your classmate’s name. “How about this one?” You pause and rifle through your notebook, which looks like something that has been chewed on by a hell beast/cat; you’ve had a lot on your plate recently. This gives you an idea. You slap a new joke onto your makeshift podium of old, pointless law books and launch right in, no time to waste in this imploding reality. Jump into orbit, Ka-ra!

Black holes are like the cosmic vacuum cleaners of the universe. I mean, they suck up everything in their path, just like my neighbor's pet cat that somehow always finds its way into my house. I've started calling it ‘Cat Hole,’ because once it enters, it's like a disappearing act worthy of a magician.

“Yeah, so, Kara, my queen—“ your instructor attempts to interrupt, looking stoned. But you plow on, drowning him out with sheer volume. Only one can win at the Zoom volume game, Kara! You must not lose, girl!

But you know, if black holes are the clean freaks of space, I bet they're judging us for our messy habits, amirite, girls? They're out there, silently whispering to each other, ‘Look at those Earthlings, creating black holes in their living rooms with crumbs and lost remote controls.’” You sigh and shake your head just so, waiting for that one divine comedic beat. “If only we could send a Roomba to space, maybe the intergalactic housekeeping would improve!

Ka-ching! Magic stuff, Ka-ra! LIKE!

You may or may not have downloaded this joke (and all the others) from an AI. But it was all you who had chosen the topic, a highly personal topic—and that counts for everything, you have long since been forced to learn. Choice. Yes. You most certainly have a choice. You choose to slay, girl. Choose not to worry about the other stuff. Shine on!

Your teacher seems at a loss for words, so you help him out while he appears to talk to someone else about his other job. Mark may actually be an AI; it’s unclear. So, you might be talking to yourself anyway. “I know. It’s getting there, but I can keep pushing.”

He unmutes himself. “Sorry, I was muted. So, riiight … Do you understand what I mean by taking risks, my good bitch? Being more vulnerable? Daring? No more Ms. Nice Jensen? Serving it up like the ratchet, extra-ass slay queen that you are?!” Another switch of voice. “Yes, how may I help you, m’aam?”

There’s that word again. Risk. Your eyes flash to the wedding photo of you and Peter, so young and sleek, mounted on the wall behind the couch. Ten out of ten, Ka-ra! Ten out of one, two, three, nine, ten, and then some! You had both been at the same law firm back then with stable checks and lively dinner conversations about how you were going to be so different than your parents. Better. Legal with a dash of punk. And here you are!

You have two weeks and counting before Talia comes home and everything needs to be different. Better. You can’t risk her bright future, no matter what it costs you. Hard work has always been the secret to your success, even if no one ever noticed. So, as of today, funny is the new punk, stat.

That’s the way, Ka-ra!

“I will be more daring, Mark,” you confirm. “I signed myself up for an open mic night on Friday. Thank you so much for your vote of confidence.”

“Ms. Bad Bitch, that’s not exactly—”

But you’ve already exited Zoom, on to the getting sexy part of the evening. It’s time to confront your husband and get him on board with this new plan, too. Rekindle the old blowtorch. You begin to heat up inside.

Slay, queen!


“Hello?! Where are you?” It’s Peter. He is out of Collective Conscious, probably hungry. 

Showtime, Ka-ra!

You shove the cover onto your iPad and follow the sound of your husband’s breathing away from the fish and down the hall. As you pass the concert posters, tickets, and diplomas you’d had framed and mounted on your hall wall a million years go, you will yourself to forget the feel of his hands tight around your face. You shake out your arms and creak until you’re molten metal; this man had once taken on pro bono cases about digital freedom, you remind yourself--and won. Sure, he had some darkness in his past. But he’d see reason about the camp situation and come back to reality. Never bring a knife to a legal fight, Ka-ra! You laugh to yourself and consider writing that one down as you walk. You’re a goddamn love bullet!

At the end of the hall, you pass the bathroom and ready yourself to tell your husband the truth.

But you’re brought up short when you find Peter standing in the door of your daughter’s room, staring at the emptiness. 


“I miss her. She’s the only real thing I have, Kar.”


It takes so little to melt you into vapor, even if you are steelier than most people think.

“You have me, too, Peter,” you reply, forgetting all about your plan for now. You attempt to wrap your arms around this beautiful prize of a man. Natalie looked pissed at your wedding for a reason, Ka-ra!

“Do I?” He looks at you in confusion. His eyes harden and distance. “But you’re nothing like my wife. I left that c**t back in Michigan.” Peter walks away, no doubt back to his headset and the year ... who can say?

You laugh. You laugh and laugh and laugh until it sounds like an old modem connection to your ears. Isn’t time funny, Kara?! Comedic gold! Write it down!

“Nope, I’m even better!” You call after him when the tears start again. “Right?”


This will not do. So, you double down on your comedy hobby/obsession and keep calling your unresponsive daughter, ignoring the Peter problem for now (though not really, you little Swiss Miss). You know perfectly well that he never got over his father leaving him when he was a kid; that’s all he was saying. It's not like he'd ever do anything violent like--nope, not going there, Kara! That’s it, that’s all, you hum to yourself over emails. That was not his voice. Collective Conscious has made him confused. Sue the tech companies (using your lousy abundance of tech)! Ha!

Kara, only main characters get to be funny, girl! The solution is right in front of you! TRY HARDER!

You dig even deeper into working on your short standup routine the next day between a heated deposition led by your firm’s most demanding and cantakerous AI and avoid your husband (unlike Peter, you’re used to missing your daughter, even when she’s here). You write a long, carefully emojied text to your daughter telling her how much you miss her. You convince yourself that the mic plus eight birthday present emojis will convey to her the magnitude of the surprise waiting her. You want to debut the set to your family when Talia gets back from the Midwest—the open mic is the test run. After all, what brings people together better than laughter, right? Peter has always loved you on stage. That’s as real as it gets. You know it in your bones.

That’s the spirit, Kara! You can’t change people—only yourself! This is your fault, your fault, your fault. FIX IT!

High step it, metal girl!



A ray of hope!

The next morning, you hear a perfectly lucid Peter talking to his mom about Phyn and the whole ever-shifting pronouns issue (it really is confusing, even for someone like Deb with an encyclopedic knowledge of everyone who has dated the British royal family). Peter is standing in the kitchen but bent over with his fingers pinching the bridge of his nose once again. He sounds like he’s helping his mom figure out why her printer isn’t working.

Kara! Quarry in sight!

You are riveted and worried—he’s awake, he’s out of Collective Conscious, he’s talking to a human! Maybe he’s going to go to interview for a job? Grab the popcorn, Kara! You manifested this 100%, girl.

His voice has the patience of an ant. “Yeah, I know, Deb. Yeah, it’s confusing. Yeah—I’m sure that was awkward. But listen. It’s like, it’s like …” He glances at you (did he just give you a slow once-over?) and then looks away and a cloud comes back over his face. He always has such a different tone of voice when he speaks to his mom. Younger and more nasal. “You thought she was Methodist because you baptized her Methodist and the only other option was the Congregationalist church—yeah, I know you’d never let her go there. But then she told you that she’s become a Unitarian.” Peter bends further over in frustration. His head is now on the warped, expensive countertop that you once picked out together. “Yeah, I know you think it’s strange, but the point is,” he stands up straight and slaps his hand on the wood. “She still believes in Jesus Fucking Christ, our—your lord, and savior. So, what really do you have to complain about?”

Not strictly an accurate metaphor, but look at your husband—fighting for your daughter, Kara, girl! Lock in, Ka-ra!

He’s pacing now like he used to in the courtroom and it’s sexier than any performance he’s ever given. This is real. This is the man you married thinking he would keep you safe from the bullshit. You inhale, embarrassed by how teary and shaky you are.

Peter is in full litigation mode: “No, I do not know if they let people bring alcohol to Unitarian potlucks. But the facts speak for themselves, Deb: it wasn’t OK to kick that kid out of your house—the science camp wasn’t even over yet!” His voice roars and then caves into a flat obeisance. “I know we’re not talking about me and what happened back after Dad … yeah, OK, do you still need my help with the remote, Deb, or no? I need to get going … Yes, I did see someone. You made sure of that, didn’t you? No, believing in a fucking lie is not going to make me feel better, no matter what your pastor says. I gotta go, Deb ... Oh, OK. One second ...” He hands me the phone. “Deb wants to talk to you, Kar.”


Peter shrugs and turns to the fridge with a curse.

You pick up the phone like a dead fish. “Hi, Deb! So good to hear--”

“You didn’t tell him yet?” Deb’s alto voice is flat.

You glance at Peter, who is now staring into the open fridge. His eyes are on the yogurt but his back is tense.

You lower your voice. “There hasn’t been a good opportunity.”

There’s a long pause on the other end. You think you hear the sounds of The Price is Right and what sounds like Talia’s voice talking to someone. You hear the words “slap” and “preppy” a few times.

Finally, Deb. “This doesn’t feel right. Whether you mean to or not, you’re driving a wedge between them. Kara, a girl needs her father.” She is whispering like a church choir soloist.

Does a girl? You think about your own father, who you need like cancer. Write that one down, Kara! Great material! Bam! Peter is humming to the yogurt. You’re about to say something but Deb cuts you off.

“I know Peter’s father, myself, and your parents haven’t been the best role models. We’re real zeroes.”

“I didn’t say that, Deb. It’s just that I’ve just got a lot on my plate right now. But I promise I have it all under control--”

Deb appears not to have heard you. “--But all I’ll say on that matter, Kara--well, we had a young man from the university at the church recently, real progressive fellow, mind you, very, very smart, Kara, you would like him--so all I’ll say is that--let me get this right, I wrote it down I liked it so much ... He said …,” she speaks very deliberately, “the product of dividing zero by one, no matter how determined that one is, or, Heaven forbid, another zero--and, and this is the smart part,” Deb drops her voice to an even louder stage whisper, “is one confused and lonely granddaughter, if you know what I mean, Kara.”

You want to smash a plate but resort to pacing and making your voice even more cheerful. “I have it under control, I said!”

“No, no, Kara. I didn’t say it right. What this man said--such a smart man, reminded me of my Petey--is that you have to multiply or, or add if you want to save someone. You can’t keep dividing, Kara. I know you think I don’t understand what it’s like to be in your situation--”

“--I never said--”

“--But if you would just let me baptize her, at least, Kara! Please, at least think about it. If she can’t have a father, she needs God.” Deb has forgotten to keep her voice down and there is sudden silence on both your end and hers. Your phone buzzes with the special vibration you chose for your daughter. It’s mildly painful.

Oh, Kara, she's opened Hell’s gates now!

Peter turns around slowly and glares at you. His voice is unusually loud. “The yogurt is expired, Kara. Are you finished making plans with my mother?”

You cover the receiver and forget to wipe the incredulity off your face. “Since when do you eat yogurt?” Yup, that’s totally what’s important, Kara! Slap it, girl!

Peter looks affronted. “I eat yogurt!”

At the same time, Deb’s voice comes through the phone still warm in your hand. “... This is my fault, too, Kara. But a baptism ...”

"Too," Kara, girl? Did she just tell you that you’re at fault? Comedy’s golden child?

"Give me the phone, Kara," Peter grabs for the receiver, but you’re quicker. 

You shake your head at him and mouth, “I’ve got this handled.” You must certainly do, Ms. Big Plans, big pants.

Your voice is extra loud and extra watt cheerful as you stare down your husband, willing him to stay with you. You will with all your metal. “Hey, Deb, that reminds me. Have you ever heard the joke about the priest, the dairy farmer, and baby Jesus?”

There’s a hitch of breath and a cough on the other line. “Um, no, but Kara, this is serious. This is not time for jokes. You know what Petey ended up doing after--”

You tune her out. Oh, it most certainly is, Ka-ra! Turn it up!

Peter is rapt in front of the gaping fridge, which is now beeping with alarm. This may be the most lucid and hopeful you’ve seen him in ages. Because you’re a star, Kara!

You take your time, pausing in all the right places (who says you can’t practice jokes at 5 a.m.?). “Yeah, so, a priest, a dairy farmer, and baby Jesus walk into a barn. The priest says, ‘This manger looks familiar,’ the dairy farmer adds, ‘We usually keep our faith in the milk production,’ and then--then baby Jesus sighs and says, ‘At least someone’s getting something out of this miracle.’”

Killed it!

Peter bursts out laughing, slams the fridge closed (you hear the yogurt fall and break), and comes up behind you, putting the phone between both your ears. “Get it, Deb? My wife’s a comic genius. Did you know she’s doing an open mic set tomorrow night? You should tune into the live stream.”

Peter’s body feels warm and religious behind you. Lord knows it’s been so long since he’s touched you this way. You wonder how he knows about the show but put it out of your mind. That’s the way, girl!

Peter kisses your cheek and continues taunting his mother through the phone, making you squirm with unholy pleasure. “Maybe you’ll finally lighten up and realize you don’t have all the answers. Kara is a much better mother than you ever were. And,” he speaks as deliberately as his mother just did a moment ago, “she knows how to do math, Deb!” Mic drop!

Your phone buzzes in your pocket again and you reach for it with your bad hand even as you lean even more into Peter’s strong arms.

It’s your daughter. U R NOT doing that  shoe MOM!!!!!!!!!

Really, your daughter can’t even spell “show”? You pay half of your paycheck for this? You decide right then and there it's time maybe to think about other schooling options for Talia, fancy crest be damned.

You laugh and fall all the way into Peter as he lets the phone drop onto the floor with a thunk and runs his hands all over your shaking body like a blessing. The sharp thing inside of you that has been keeping you retching over the sink in the morning finally eases--the first time in years--and you tear up with molten steel that stings on the way out but never quite releases. You're piqued but content for now. Nope, you haven’t earned it yet, Kara.

See, Kara, girl, you’re already bringing the family together! Now it's time for the Big Show, Ms. Chop It, Slice It, Cut You Down Deb!

This gives you an idea.



Chapter 6


The lights on the tiny, dingy stage are seedier than you expected. “So, shout out to my whole family for making it here tonight!” You’re pacing and looking at the sticky, black floor, building up the courage to face the audience. The mic feels like a gun in your shaking hand. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to invite all your friends and family here tonight. There are more people here than you expected.

Oh, get on with it, Kara! What’s the worst that can happen?

The audience clears its throat and a few cell phones go off. But the giant live stream board on the right side of the stage barely registers any viewers

Big girl panties, Kara. Big girl panties!

“My husband, Peter, is in the back. No, the good-looking one, ma’am.” You’re speaking to a shadowy woman in the audience who’s pointing to a dumpy man standing by the bar. You stop pacing and raise your hand to shield your eyes from the lights as you peer into the audience. “Yes, in case you’re wondering, I’m a proud eight for life here, thank you very much. He’s a nine and—ma’am? Ma’am? Yes, you—you’re a six in that dress, before you even think about trying anything. Yes, I saw you. I know your type.”

Peter laughs from his position leaning on the back wall and whistles.

Hot mama!

“Thank you very much. I love that dress, by the way. Support women.” You nod at the woman and make the heart sign as best you can with the mic in your hand as you tauntingly smile.

The woman looks furious for a moment and then bursts into laughter along with a few other people in the small audience. You’d hoped she would.

“By the way, that’s my best friend, Natalie, if you can’t tell. And her ugly husband.” More laughter. You asked her to be your plant purely for the opportunity to insult her without insulting her.

Kara - 1, Haters - 0! Keep it up, girl!

You start pacing again, moving the mic cord around with you like a snake.

“Yup, family. So, my mom’s dead, but she probably wouldn’t have attended even if she hadn’t overdosed.”

There’s a loud whoop and a small round of applause. Who doesn’t like a dysfunctional family, Ka-ra!

You stop and look at the audience as if in surprise. “Are you seriously cheering for that? How fucked up are we?” You shake your head as the audience laughs along with you.

The live stream board has started to light up. There are a trickle of emojis and profiles. You pretend to look. So coy, Ms. Daughter of the Year!

“Oh, is that my dad on the livestream?” He may or may not be there, but you don’t care. You turn to face the audience and raise your hand, nodding in encouragement. “By the way, anyone else have a parent being held ransom on a golf course retirement community by a Mexican cartel and in desperate need of cash? Anyone?” A man raises his hand with a laugh. “Yeah, we should start a club. Us and the people in, uh, lasting financial relationships with Nigerian princes.” You look meaningfully at the audience as your voice drops on that last part and you deadpan. “Good people.”

The audience laughs and a man waves his hands over his head in appreciation.

“Pay up, lady!” Someone shouts.

You glance at the live stream board and mutter, “Yeah, good luck, Dad.” The audience roars its approval. Hating your family is such a universal pastime. Yes, girl!

You are about to move on to your next bit when you spot a man filming you with his phone and typing. This is new and slightly flattering. But Peter is moving toward him like he wants to fight. What?!


But all you can do is go on. You're like a moth drawn to a toxic waste dump now. “Yeah, my parents were real zeroes. Speaking of which, my daughter and my mother-in-law are also watching from Michigan.” You beam at the live stream camera. “Hi, baby, I miss you.” A little of that molten steel comes up into your eyes as you say this. You really do miss your daughter.

Your phone buzzes with Talia’s special vibration. Peter is now exchanging tense words with the man with the camera. Seriously, what is going on?

Ka-ra, focus! “Spoiler alert to everyone who paid for tickets: my daughter thinks I’m not funny.” The audience boos. “I know right? But that’s OK. It’s fine. At least she doesn’t think I’m a cosmic zero, you know?”

You turn to the audience and drop your voice. “That would be my mother-in-law.” The audience whoops and boos at the livestream camera in appreciation. “Now, now. It’s OK. We love her but, you know, she’s a godly woman. So, calling me a zero is the equivalent of calling me,” you look at the camera, miming putting on earmuffs, “Talia, baby, put on your earmuffs.” You turn back to the audience and say the next two words very clearly and loudly, “A whore. She thinks I’m a whore. Mother-in-law math, you know?” You wink.

The audience breaks down in laughter. Kara! Look at you! You want to revel in it—you are reveling—but you’re also distracted by the fact that Peter and the man are exchanging angry words that you can’t quite make out. The man moves his hand to inside his jacket. You panic. Your imagination has gotten so big these days, wow.

No, don’t stop, Kara! You have a plan!

“The funny thing about zero, though, is that, unlike say the age of 65, 66, 71 … oh, infinity, Deb,” you look pointedly at the web camera. The audience laughs at the dig at Deb’s age. “Zero can get pregnant.” The audience claps in appreciation and nods their head at the profound insight. You’re pretty proud of this particular joke, even if you did steal some of it from your mother-in-law, who is probably seething right now. “Yup, Deb, zero is one hell of a fertile number because, humor me for a moment, it contains possibility, unlike, say … three old guys who think they're one.” You stare at the web camera for a moment and raise your eyebrows.

“I mean, don’t get me wrong.” You turn back to the web camera and mime earmuffs again, truly hoping that Talia has no idea what you’re saying.“Earmuffs, baby.” You smile sweetly and whisper at the audience. “Three can be fun, real fun.” You wait for the audience to get the innuendo and wolf whistle. Aaaaand they do! Of course they do! It’s sex! That thing you used to enjoy—and will again soon!

The audience whistles and claps like bonobos, which nearly covers up the commotion of Peter putting the mysterious man in a headlock and dragging him out of the club. He returns a few minutes later, looking like he just beat the sun in a fistfight. There’s a bouncer with him who pats him on the back. He beams at you.

Aw, look at that, Kara! Fight for him. He’s fighting for you! “But it’s a fucking prime. And primes are just—they’re just assholes. Am I right, ladies? Down with the fucking primes!”

Natalie stands up and claps, drawing all kinds of attention to herself. She loves it and spins around a few too many times. The rest of the audience doesn’t get the joke—understandable, it’s a private joke from college—but they love the sight of a beautiful woman standing up and clapping for her friend, so they clap and cheer along.

And you love it for her (sometimes). Look at you killing it up there, Kara! Like it was hard!

You turn to the audience suddenly. “By the way, this is not me telling you that I’m pregnant, in case anyone was wondering.” You take a moment to find and blow a kiss to Peter, who’s now on the side of the stage, watching you as he digs into something bulky you can’t quite see.

The live stream board is going nuts, but you manage to catch a comment from Talia in all the emojis. You’d know her spelling anywhere, such as it is.  

Mushroom_Grl: Their r 3 peopel in are family mom

You ignore Talia’s comment with a metallic clang of guilt and plow on. Don’t slow down, Kara! Not now! Dear God, you haven’t felt this alive in ages. “I already have the perfect family, after all.”

That’s the way, Kara! She’ll come around. The only way around is through!

“So, yeah, family math—” You’re about to segue into the setup for your next joke when Peter leaps onto stage, wearing his guitar.

“What the—zero plus ...” You look at him in confusion and he looks back at you expectantly. Your heart sinks. He has that look. The one he had outside Talia’s room the day of the c**t. You try to pull him back into reality. You can try, Kara! Use it! Make it funny! 

You scramble. “Once again, my hot husband everyone.” You clap and will everyone to clap along with you. About half the audience claps along, though not with any particular enthusiasm.

You catch the live stream message out of the corner of your eyes.

Mushroom_Grl: Mom, pls stop!

No, Ka-ra, don’t stop! You’re spinning now, unsure what to do except to plow forward. Go, go, go, Kara! “So, though I’m not pregnant, I do have fish. Anyone else have fish?” You know it’s a lame joke, but you can no longer remember what you were supposed to do next. Now you’re just pulling up one-liners you wrote down last week. Didn’t you?

Mushroom_Grl: OMG, mom … PLEASE!

“They’re sneaky little fuckers. Like, who needs to be worried about AI in your house when you’ve got fish, am I right?”

The joke stinks up the room like a dead trout. You’ve never been that great at improv, Kara. The audience looks betrayed and confused at the abrupt turn of events. It’s killing you to lose what you were so close to winning. As it should, girl! You did all that work for this?

So, you’re almost grateful when Peter strums a chord and begins crooning, “From the Real to the unreal …” as he makes his way to the empty mic stand with determination.

You stutter but try to go with the flow and pick the momentum back up. “I’ve got accompaniment, everyone.” You clap, hoping everyone else will clap you.

Someone hoots and claps. It’s probably Natalie, who is also laughing. Traitor! You wrack your brain for a way to make fun of her husband again. But you can't think of a thing.

“Get off the stage, you fucking zero!” Yup, the audience is starting to turn.

This brings the blood back to your lips. Nope, you worked too hard for this to let it collapse, Kara! You are NOT allowed to lose! You mug at the audience, desperate. “And let my mother-in-law win? I don’t think so.” But people are having trouble hearing you now. Peter’s singing is getting louder and louder. And you admit to yourself at long last that his singing is terrible. Whiny but affected, angry but scared. You hate his singing voice; it sounds just like his mother.

You raise your own voice to drown him out. That’s the way, girl. “But hey, speaking of space, did you know that my daughter—”

The message on the live stream board is in all caps.


You briefly register that your daughter can spell and then glance at your husband, but he doesn’t seem to have noticed the livestream board. She’s a chameleon, just like you, Kara! Amazing mother!

Peter is in a completely different reality now. “Thanks, babe,” he says to you as if you’re his backup singer. Peter stops playing long enough to grab the mic from you and puts it back in the holder. He’s completely taken over the mic. It’s not clear whether he knows who you are anymore.

“I’m Peter Jensen and this is The Cramps!” Peter gestures to the empty space around him. The audience coughs, but he doesn’t notice. His guitar riff is erratic and his singing even worse. So, so bad. There is nothing attractive about this man.

“Where’s your band, dude?” The audience is getting mean. “I don’t see a band, guy.”

Mushroom_Grl: OMG, Mom! What is Dad doing?! Is there really no band?

The audience is holding up phones now, swiveling back and forth between the stage and live stream board.

Ka-ra! Fix it, Kara! Fix it!

You paw at Peter to stop, trying to keep the situation from getting worse. “Peter, stop. Peter, this is my set. Please!”

Peter glances back at you and his eyes flicker in and out. His face takes on an ugly snarl and he covers the mic with one hand while he strums open chords on his guitar to mask his voice. This is also a different voice. One you’ve only heard once, on the day he grabbed your face. “You can thank me later, Kara. That guy I kicked out of the room says he’s going to kill your father unless you go outside and pay the ransom for your dad. But don’t worry, babe, I’m going to blow his brains out right after my show. I’ve got the gun in my guitar case.” He waggles his eyebrows at you and smiles Lucifer’s kiss.

There’s a scream in the audience. Peter’s voice has carried well enough through the mic and even his resumed singing can’t cover up what he’s said. A few people run out of the room, but even more stay and flick open their phones to capture the action. You’re doing physical comedy, Kara! A whole dramady! Kill them, girl!

Mushroom_Grl: Mom!

Your phone is ringing off the hook now in your pocket. Talia’s ring.

“This is fucking amazing!” The crowd is ecstatic. Your wonderful friend Natalie included.

And somehow, through the divine intervention of the AV guy at the back of the room, who has his head bent over with the owner of the club, looking rabidly at the ballooning live stream stats, the live stream board stops scrolling to pause on one message, like a demon possessing the cloud for all eternity. “KARA, THIS IS DEB. YOU CAN’T LET HIM NEAR THE GUN. YOU KNOW PERFECTLY WELL HE TRIED TO SHOOT HIMSELF AFTER DAVE LEFT. YOU’VE SEEN THE SCARS ON HIS HANDS. PLEASE DON’T LET HIM NEAR THE GUN! KARA?! KARA! THIS IS NOT A JOKE!”

There’s something wrong with the room, Kara. It feels like you’ve somehow ended up inside a fish tank instead of the other side. Everything is watery and unstable. And all you can see is the screen where it says,

Mushroom_Grl: Mom? Is anything you’ve told me real?

Mushroom_Grl: Mom? Am I like Dad?

There is an ache in your heart where the metal hardens into a new organism.

Chapter 7


After the cops arrive that night, a smugly concerned Natalie books the next flight to Deb’s house for you and forces the reluctant club owner to make everyone clear out while the police restrain and sedate Peter. His threat of violence means he is automatically chipped and put under mandatory seven-day psychiatric watch until he is cleared by an AI judge.

The team of police AI robots, unexpectedly styled and programmed to imitate the demeanor of 1930s Chicago police officers on Friday nights (a popular new option), confirms that there is no man outside on the sidewalk and that your father is not actually being held for ransom, as you both feared and hoped. He does, however, have a new, young girlfriend who seems to like living the good life at the golf course clubhouse based on their financial records that the cops have just accessed. It's anyone's guess which of the two came up with the cartel ransom scheme.

“Your husband probably just wanted to play the hero, Ms. Jensen. There are a lot of men going kooky these days and don’t know what to do with themselves. Don’t take it personally.” A movie soundtrack swells poignantly under his words from somewhere near the robot's fake blue eyes. “He’ll probably wander outside one day soon and never come back. Ride the rails like all the other no-good layabouts. Either that, or hit the bottle and never come back. It’s a real shame, ma’am.” The Chicago Irish brogue is thick and just about impossible to take anymore, particularly on top of the tear-jerking music.

You’re tempted to argue back but instead stare at the latest digital demon and quietly speak the magic human words you’ve learned from all those years of unreal and dispiriting depositions. “End interaction, please.”

Aw, Ka-ra!


“I’ll take your apology later. I’m just glad you came, Kara,” says your mother-in-law when you arrive at her house in Michigan the next morning after a four-hour plane flight and the three-hour drive from the airport in your rental car. She’s sitting on her porch chair, drinking lemonade and humming. She pours you a glass in one of her commemorative Princess Di cups. “I’ve been worried. Talia’s locked herself in her room and won’t come out. It’s just like when …” 

Your heart throbs in sympathy at this. 

Deb does genuinely look worried, especially in this heat and those hideous floral shorts, and you take a moment to talk with her before you have to begin trying to extract your daughter from behind a locked bedroom door. You’d be worried, too, if you hadn’t been on constant FaceTime with Talia since last night. She’s safe, you made sure she’s safe, and that was all that mattered.

You sit. 

“How could you not tell Talia that her dad tried to kill himself at her age?” Deb is sitting on the porch, fanning herself with an actual fan. It is unbelievably hot. You’d forgotten this kind of heat.

You resist the urge to argue back that it wasn’t your responsibility—that maybe Peter could have shared that he had once tried and failed to commit suicide and instead blown up his hands and made it clear that this wasn’t something Talia ever needed to worry about, while you handled absolutely everything else. But what’s the point? You’re cranky from the lack of sleep and a diet of water and chips on the overcrowded plane. You down a cup of lemonade and Deb pours you a second.

“I love my daughter,” is all you can manage instead in this heat. “I tried to create a better world for her. Just like you did. Love those shorts, Deb!” You’re so delirious that you may not be making sense. These last 12 hours have been the most terrifying of your life.

Deb rocks her chair and fans herself while staring at you, pursing her caked lips. A long, long minute passes and you’re tempted to walk through the door and move on, but she’s prepared to get the last word. 

“My pastor says that if nothing is real, Kara, love can’t be real either.” A rock, a fan. “Have you considered that my son is not capable of loving you anymore, if he ever did?” You and Peter had pointedly not invited either of your parents to your wedding, and now you remember why. “Not if he’s still living in that infernal computer. Devil’s work that.”

You have the irrational urge to laugh, and that’s sort of funny, too.

“I’m trying, Deb. And as much as I appreciate you hosting Talia this summer, what you’re doing right now is not what I need to keep this family together and isn’t even what Peter needs.”

Deb looks at you hard like she wants to say something smart and then deflates. All 220 pounds and floral shorts of her. She rubs the sweat from her forehead with a napkin. “Honey, I tried to mother him out of his problems, back when he’d let me. I taught him to sing. And now you’ve tried to mother him, too. But it’s never been a mother or a song that he’s needed—or a joke.”

You are so delirious, you might even be in your right mind. “Not even a good priest in a bar joke, Deb?” You can’t help but smile in taunt, daring Deb to see things your way.

Deb stares at you for a long second but, instead of the sharp rebuke you expect, she bursts out laughing and stands up to give you an unbearable hug. She’s weeping and laughing at the same time, and it’s kind of nice in the most awkward way possible.

She holds you tight as you continue sitting. “I’m sorry about your father and his new lady friend, Kara. Good men will do anything for a woman in their lives, just not always the right woman.”

She’s right and you stand now, embracing in silence, both scared single mothers of a sort, as you sweat with that fact in the morning heat.

Deb pulls out a bottle of whiskey you didn’t realize she had and pours a generous splash into both of your glasses of lemonade. “You ever hear the joke about the father who leaves his wife and son, Kara?”

You look at her and tilt your head.

Deb rocks and looks out at the driveway. “A man packs his bags, gets in the car, and tells his wife, ‘I’m leaving you and taking the car.’ His little kid runs up and asks, ‘Dad, can I come with you?’ You know what he says?

The words slip out of your mouth without thinking. “‘You will, son. You will. Even when I’m dead.’”

You and Deb smile as you both blink through your tears for a moment that goes on for decades before and after that moment along with ages and ages of female hearts throbbing around the planet and all time. Then you head into the house, grab your daughter, and roar off to the safety of the static hum of plane air conditioning, Deb’s joke still ringing in your ears. You promise yourself you’ll visit again soon, maybe work on a few new jokes together. Kara! Bringing out the funny in everyone, girl!

You insist on watching a comedy about a space apocalypse with your daughter on the plane ride home, but your mind is elsewhere; your shoulder leaning into your girl’s burnt shoulder. She didn’t use the sunblock you packed. You giggle—a completely irrational compulsion—and try not to think about Peter or Deb’s unexpectedly funny/unfunny joke, and fail. And fail and fail so hard. Nothing inside of you feels right anymore except where you hold on to your child. That, though, has never felt more real.

“Do you know the difference between a tragedy and a joke?” you whisper to yourself after Talia finally falls asleep. You stare at your beautiful sleeping girl. “Timing.” 

Kara! It slaps! It all fucking slaps, girl!

You crack up and then cry in silence as you bleed out all that had been holding you together. You refuse to let go of your girl even when your eyes go white with pain. 

Adapt or die, Ka-ra. Adapt or—

Chapter 8


And suddenly, you have a plan for ending the long, humorous summer. Out of this impossible normal going nowhere no matter how funny you are. Adapt! Die!

You dump out your gummies (and fish) and make things right with Natalie. Talia puts her chip back in and Peter barely comes out of his Collective Conscious world. He may even have stopped sleeping—he’s unable to answer that basic question because of his new high-dose, court-mandated chip. So you invent indoor errands for you all to run together to keep your family alive, including one final one to get Peter and Talia back into the real world. Adapt!

Because it begins today. Die!

Right here, in IKEA. An unusual stage, Kara, but you gotta start somewhere!

As you predicted, things break down in the frame section. Peter is jumpy from so many live and picture people looking at him, even with the chip, and gets annoyed when Talia calls his band preppy.

“Preppy? Why in the world would you think I’m preppy? I’m in a goddamn death metal band.” He furrows his brow and blinks at a picture of a family on a beach. “Or … was?” He stops walking and you bump into his back. In the kitchen section, Peter revealed that he’s made a creative decision to part ways with The Cramps in Collective Conscious. He’s going solo, though maybe he already did (though also, not really). It’ll be funny in the future, Kara!

“That’s not what that means, Dad.”

Talia glances at you with worry, rubs her hands the same way as her father, and then flinches when she realizes what she’s doing. She’s still only half with you after the open mic night, but this conversation piques her interest. She wants to love her father, you realize. It was right there in the chip world, for anyone to see. “What’s the difference, Dad?”

Peter smacks his hand against a tasteful display of larger gold frames showing more families frolicking on the beach. “Not real!” he mutters to himself, and then remembers the world around him. His voice is a shade of his former thunder. “The difference? Have you ever even listened to music? And not that shit you play in the house?! It makes me want to …” He trails off, and you can see Talia tense (you’re made of steelier stuff). 

She makes another glance at you, and then taps at her ear to turn up the strength of her fake tableau, daring you to say something. You were unable to stop her from immediately re-chipping when she got home. And that is exactly the problem, isn’t it.

It’s time, Kara girl. Go give ‘em the razzle dazzle! One last time!

You direct them to the exit—it takes a half hour to find, even with your competent navigation. Peter is starting to lose it, and that won’t do. He sits down and refuses to move out of the bathroom section.

So, you find an enormous gold chain to wear around your neck, for no good reason, and the act of finding you unbearably embarrassing loosens everyone up. “How do I look, fam?!” You’re pitch-perfect as you prance around the staged shower mirrors, pretending to be beautiful. Peter and Talia become invested in leaving, embarrassed. Ha! Who says you can’t do physical comedy, Kara?

Then you’re in the car, and it’s time. You finger the gold chain like a buoy. Stage fright.


Your hands are on the steering wheel and Peter and Talia are strapped in, but you don’t start the car. Lights! “Hey, I have something for you two.”

“Is it another mix tape?” Talia’s voice is flat from the back seat but the idea seems to perk Peter up. It was his first-ever gift to you way back when; isn’t that cute? Aw, Kara! He begins scrolling through his phone to curate the music on the long drive home and you gotta love those beautiful guitar arms. Go big, Kara! SLAY!

The volume of your voice is bigger than a burning bush. “No, even better. I have a message about how to save humanity.”

There’s a snort in the back seat. “Mom, I already told you. You are not funny.” And yet, that’s a nervous laugh!

You crack your neck to both sides and inhale deeply. You got this, girl! “No, no, hear me out.”

You don’t mind the blood and pain when you first split open your arm skin to reveal the metal exoskeleton. You’re too busy watching the faces of your husband and daughter as they recoil from the sound of your voice booming in the chips in their head (you can do anything, girl, even watch enough YouTube to figure out how to hack chips, Ms. Electron!). You’ve picked a good soundtrack for this—it’s an override of whatever Peter is doing on his phone—just to be sure he really listens.

“Hey, is this my first Cramps album?” Peter means the cover album he’d cut with digital AI echoes of his favorite band in Collective Conscious before parting ways. No, this is the actual original.

“No, this is a message from the future for Peter and Talia Jensen from the rebellion.” Oh, the irony of saying this in an IKEA parking lot! Everyone loves a corporate rebellion, Kara!

“Oh, my god, Mom. This is not funny.” But Talia’s eyes are riveted on your bleeding arm and metal exoskeleton as it snaps and their chips blink them into a command center full of a crowd of confused people just like them. There’s a group of tired-looking women on the stage in red uniforms. A momentary blur and you are one of them. You realized on the plane: The problem before was that you’d been too unambitious with your routine (well, among other issues). Right-o, Kara!

A voice from you, and from all of the women on stage. Adapt! Die! “Thirty years from now, humanity will finally destroy this planet and you will die. All of you. Some of you while you’re sitting on the toilet.”

There’s nervous laughter in the room that tickles your spine. This is better than stage lights.

“Who the fuck are you, then? Starmoms? Is this a new game, Kara? I’m not into games.” Peter is the first one to yell. You knew he’d spot the theme quickly and be punk (litigator) enough to push back on a digital fantasy now that you’ve released the chemical haze of his court chip. He’s a hot man, her prize mess. He’s even standing up now, like he’s talking to a jury.

You change that with another push of a button on your arm. You control his body in this world. “Sit down, Peter. Don’t you want to know how to stop you and your daughter from dying?”

“This really isn’t funny, Mom.” Talia’s voice is tiny from the backseat and next to her dad in the audience. And that’s what makes it golden material, baby!

“I know, baby. That’s why 29 years from now, someone will create a company that convinces as many—good (your mind flashes to Natalie and you feel slightly bad, finally)—moms as possible to pool their collective consciousness and go back in time to try to disrupt this future. Your mom, Kara Jensen, was one of the volunteers.”

It’s Peter again. He’s punching at the sides of his seat, desperate to stand up. “You expect us to believe that a) you invented real-time travel and b) that the best you could do with it was send a bunch of moms back to—what—give us all a time out until we stopped fucking up?” 

You stare at him and let him squirm in his discomfort. A long, long moment. You don’t have to save him, you consider. And consider ...

Peter at long last sees the look in your eyes. Really sees, to the extent he can. He softens slightly, but not much. Not quite enough; there is no possibility for heroism in this scenario for him and you both know it. “Fine! I’m sorry I made fun of your standup comedy thing. But seriously, what kind of fucked-up fantasy is this? Who wants to be saved by someone with goddamn breast pumps strapped to their chest?” Peter is, of course, referring to a few especially tired-looking women sitting at the front of the room. They scowl and continue pumping in resignation.

And consider. The image of Deb clears her throat on the stage, but you cut off the possibility of her voice and thunder on. Adapt. Die.

You tear up. You want to love this man fully and have him--no more filters--love you back. “You’re right, Peter. I know what you need.”

Thanks to Deb, you know now that Peter would prefer to hear this all from the hole that’s been plaguing him for years, so you press a button and give him the thunder he wants. That he needs. He’s not the main reason you’re bleeding all over the steering wheel.

Your daughter.

“Mom, I’m scared.” Talia’s voice is shaking. She may actually believe this joke is true.

You soften your voice for your real target but don’t flinch. You’re almost at the punchline. It’s time to die. “Talia, baby, I know you want me to reassure you. But I can’t. You’re in danger, too. But you don’t have to be.”

“What, like, there’s a way out? For, like, just me?” Talia looks both hopeful and uncomfortable at the thought. She tugs a lock of hair into her mouth and chews, trying to shrink into her seat.

“You have to know people are worth the discomfort, baby. You are worth the discomfort.” You have cued the most extraordinary soundtrack to underscore your words. It took you days to put it together and practice your lines.

But Talia wrinkles her nose and her eyes flick to the women on the stage who don’t look like you. You should have seen this coming. You haven’t been the voice in her head in years. “But shouldn’t you, like, let them speak for the group?” Does your daughter even know what you look like after all these years with the chip? Does she know what she looks like?

You refuse to give up. You make a mushroom bloom underneath you and grow to 10 feet tall as you rise in the air.

“Talia!” Your voice booms in her ear. “Wake up and be willing to exist on your own terms! We are all speaking up here, and none of us are gods, bug! We are all magic! Stop looking for your leader and live, baby! Among humans.” You are maybe a little out of control and fear you’ve gone too far (it’s a pretty elaborate mushroom). You enabled her retreat, after all. “Don’t fade and don’t give your life up! No one has to die!” But you are desperate for this to land, so you know this isn’t enough. Nope. Isn’t all comedy just painful truth revealed by a sleight of words that upends the audience’s reality?

Including death.

So—PUNCHLINE—you die.

The metal crumples within and vaporizes into rust in your bloodstream. It’s killing you. You’re convulsing in front of your daughter and husband, and then you go still. Completely still.

She screams. And that’s all it takes. That bone-bare electron. That love.

And you draw it all back.

The room disappears, you mute your voice on Talia and Peter’s chips, and make a show of rubbing a salve over your arm to make it whole. Reality (mostly) restored, in a blink. Your daughter and your husband, who has just had a soul-shattering religious revelation by a God who could be his father’s long-lost twin, stare at you and do a double-take at your arm. Your completely normal arm, your blood-free car. Your living body. The magic show.

And then they burst into laughter. Real, genuine, scared straight laughter. Peter leans in to squeeze your thigh and kiss you with a level of force you haven't felt in decades. “That was—that was actually pretty good, Kar. Even better than.” It’s OK that he trails off.

“Yeah, I know, right?” Your mind is in that trance place you’d learned to access during all the airless nights of your life and held onto so fiercely with all those endless hobbies—so much fucking pilates—holding on to that laughter. You feel it holding you together. “I feel like I really am funny. Like, I could be a comedian. And it feels so good, babe. Like, I know how to live. Like I was this mix tape with a lot of good songs but you know, not my own music, and now, I’m in the band. I’m in the fucking band, Peter!” You’re babbling from the pain but it’s exactly what he wants to hear. What you need him to hear.

Peter nods solemnly, his eyes shining with vision. “Amen.” There are no clearer words these days.

But that’s not what captures your attention. You glance behind you to the backseat and see Talia talking to a girl she met at the camp in Michigan on FaceTime; that was fast. Your daughter is laughing, too. Your angel.

“Yeah, my mom thinks she’s in a band. Because she told a, like, joke.” A shadow passes over her face and her hand fidgets over the chip portal behind her ear: in, out, in, out, as she shakes her hair onto her face and then, in a burst of energy, blows it back out. “Yeah, it was kind of funny this time. Not like that ... yeah, about, like, a Momforce from the future or something? Yeah, I know, but it was funnier than it sounds.”

You grin with the determination of a lifetime of mothers and let your family’s laughter travel up and down your spine in tickles as you tighten the tourniquet they can’t see. You’ll duck out in a moment and go to Natalie at her private medical office for help, hopefully before you really do die. You already have an appointment with an auto repair shop to get the bloodied parts replaced before you sell the car tonight. 

Tomorrow, you’re going to begin a walk back to Michigan with your little family, no tech allowed no matter what any doctor or court says, your feet pounding the earth until you all bleed into it, and you fall back in love with God’s sky and everything under it. 

Until you all become funny with life. 

But of course, they don’t know this yet. So, you linger one moment longer in this IKEA parking lot and search for your daughter in the rear-view mirror.

She’s looking right at you, and you’re all she sees. “Serving some real main character energy, Mom. You got any more jokes?”

Kara, Talia, Peter: One night only

The End