[Fiction] Kara Becomes Funny, pt. 1/2


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 rain.” 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 from 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 sex and 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 sad sack 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 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 she doesn’t look like she’s kidding.

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

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. “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 for doing this to me.”

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


ENTER KARA & GUMMY

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.

KARA, TRY HARDER!



Chapter 3


ENTER NATALIE

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.”


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 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! 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 foam. “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. 


ENTER THE JOKE

“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. 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?”

What?

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 money.”

“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 and wondered what you were reading, for real this time. Had other parents also actually read this to their kids? Like, all of them? You stared at the paper, conflicted, remembering all those times you’d nodded along to your own mother’s rants about political enemies.

Meanwhile, Talia had recoiled. You were being far too sincere. Showing doubt about the narrative.

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, Kara!). 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 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 be pulled along 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


A PAUSE

“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 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 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 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 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), 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 anonymous darkness to find yourself in. 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 Roy G Biv instead of real music … I’m getting replaced at work by a digital demon! AGAIN! I know it’s not REAL! We’re in a black hole—the fucking irony—of any color but Roy Fucking G Biv! And I—I HATE the goddamn 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 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.


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.” 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?”



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I will post part two of this story soon.