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Day Two Hundred and Sixty-two: Mutual Understanding

February 10, 2012 Leave a comment

“Go ahead,” the genie said to Jack. “Put on the ring and complete the circuit. And when you do, you and April will know everything about each other.” The genie took a long drag off his cigarette, and smiled when he exhaled smoke that was pink and shimmered slightly in the light from the kitchen lamp.

Jack turned the ring over in his hand. It was small, made of silver, with a pale blue gem set into it. His wife had the other one, identical except that her gem was pale pink. She had already put it on, and was staring at him while he hemmed and hawed. He could feel her urging him on. The genie just watched.

It had been a simple wish, though Jack hadn’t really been expecting it when he came home. After a long day trying to develop new things that could be done with processed food, he came hope in the hopes of having something to eat with his wife, maybe a beer while he went through his web-surfing, and then bed.

Instead, he found this strange man standing in the living room, next to his wife. The man was dressed in an immaculate white suit, with a few gold rings and a bracelet that gleamed against his olive skin. He had longish hair, so black that it was almost blue, and just the right amount of stubble on his face to bring him over from “too lazy to shave” to “incredibly sexy.”

At first, he thought his wife was admitting to an affair. If that had been true, it would have been a relief. Though Jack had never had any real reason to suspect she would sleep with someone else, he couldn’t think of a good reason why she wouldn’t. If the opportunity arose.

He didn’t understand her, and that was the real problem, wasn’t it? They’d been to couples counseling, but hadn’t had much luck with it. Neither of them was the type to pour out their innermost wants and needs to anyone, so they got along with each other and set up a life together that worked reasonably well. Or at least, well enough.

But there were times when he looked over at her, and he couldn’t even begin to imagine what was going on in her head. He was pretty sure she felt the same.

So when he came home and saw the strange, very handsome man, he thought, Well, here it is at last. One of us has done something, so I suppose the hard work is done.

No such luck. “Honey!” she yelled when he came in. She ran up to him and hugged him for a lot longer than usual. His hug was safe. Non-committal. Three pats and a squeeze. He never took his eyes off the man.

When April pulled away, her face was practically glowing. “You won’t believe what happened,” she said. “I was out shopping and I went over to the thrift store.” Jack bit his tongue. Their house was already cluttered from her thrift store adventures. “And there was this oil lamp,” she went on. “So I thought it might look nice on the mantle.”

“Is there room?”

She laughed and slapped his arm. “Of course there is – I was going to move the ducks to the bedroom. Anyway.” She walked over to the strange man and grasped his arm. “I was polishing it, and this man – no, not a man. This genie just appeared out of nowhere!”

The genie tipped his hat. It took Jack a moment to realize that the genie hadn’t been wearing a hat before.

Or had he?

“A genie, huh?” Jack said. He sighed and took off his jacket. “Honey, I’m really too tired for this. If this is your new boyfriend or something, I wish you would just -”

April’s gasp was enough to stop him cold. “Boyfriend?” she whispered. She stood there, hand to her heart, just blinking at him for a moment. “Jack, what on Earth would make you think I want a boyfriend?”

There was no good answer to that question. Of that much, Jack was sure. “Sorry,” he said. “It was a joke, honey.” He leaned over to kiss her, but she pulled back.

The man – the genie – stepped between them. “I understand your confusion, Mister Logan,” he said. He extended a hand and gave a bright smile. Jack noticed that the man’s eyes were a strange blue-green. “I am Nawfal,” the genie said. He took Jack’s hand and give it a single squeeze.

A wave of warmth rushed through Jack’s body, and he gasped and shuddered. He nearly fell to the floor, but Nawfal caught him. When Jack stood again, he knew something had changed. He wasn’t sure what, but something… April was staring at him with wide eyes. Jack looked from one to the other. “What?” he said, running a hand through his hair.

His hair.

Whatever was on his head, it wasn’t the thinning crop of hair that he tried every morning to make as inconspicuous as possible. He hurried into the bathroom and flicked on the light.

Not only did he now have a full head of thick, auburn hair – hair he hadn’t had since high school, for god’s sake – but he had the body that he always imagined he should have. His waist was narrow, his shoulders broad, and his back was straight and strong. No twinge at the base of his spine, no dull ache in his hip that was a signal of things to come. The man in the mirror wasn’t young again, but he was the man he would have been if he’d taken care of himself.

Nawfal came up behind him and laid a hand on his shoulder. “Not bad, eh?” he said. “That one’s for free. Just to cut short the ‘You cannot possibly be a genie’ conversation.” He lit another cigarette, and the smoke smelled of freshly-baking cookies. “I hate that conversation.”

He guided Jack out of the bathroom with some effort. “Your wife has a wish,” the genie said. “And it involves you.” He parked Jack in front of April, who kept looking him over. He was tempted to tell her that his face was up here, but it seemed in poor taste.

The genie nudged April. “Your wish?” he said.

She started. “Oh,” she said. “Right. Well.” She laid a hand on Jack’s chest and nearly lost her train of thought again. “I… I thought a lot about what to wish for,” she said. “I know we still have a lot of money on the house to pay off and there’s the credit cards, but…”

Jack’s stomach dropped. Those would have been really good wishes. The house was never going to get paid off, and the credit cards would probably go right before they died of extreme old age. Wishing for permanent financial security was probably a really good idea. “But what I wanted was…” She took a deep breath, and Jack waited for the shoe to drop.

“What I wanted was for us to understand each other, honey,” she said. “I know sometimes we have trouble communicating. I don’t know what you want, you don’t know what I want.” She gestured towards the genie. “But he said he could help. He could change that.”

“And I can,” the genie said. “But you have to choose to do it.” He held out a hand, and then opened it. There were two silver rings on his palm. One with a pink stone, one with blue. Nawfal told them that the rings would link them together permanently, and that they would perfectly understand each other from now on.

April had put the ring on right away.

Jack wasn’t so sure.

Which was weird, because he wanted to. He really did. He and April had been together for a long while, and he’d thought that they would know each other inside and out by now. That’s what everyone else seemed to do, anyway. Finish each other’s sentences, know where everything was, remember all their commitments and problems and hang-ups. And every time he had to drop hints about a Christmas present, or forgot what kind of flowers her mother liked, or what book she was reading, he felt like a failure. This would almost certainly fix all that. She would be happy, he wouldn’t have to scramble to avoid making an ass of himself. Everyone wins.

And yet…

“I don’t think I can do this,” he said.

April’s face fell and then pulled itself back together. “What?” she said. “Why not?”

He shook his head and held the ring out for the genie to take. “I don’t think it’ll end well,” he said. “I mean, there are parts of me…” He stepped forward and took her hands. “There are parts of me that I’m not proud of,” he said. “Parts that I wish I didn’t have. And while I love you and I think you’re a wonderful woman, I’m pretty sure you have things like that too.”

“What,” she said. “You think I’m keeping secrets from you?” Her anger, usually very slow to come out, was showing all over her face.

“No, no,” he said. “Nothing like that. Just… things.” He tried to get close to the idea without giving it away. “Thoughts, maybe. Thoughts you wish you didn’t have. Things you want that you know you shouldn’t. Things you did that you wish you hadn’t.” He reached out to hug her, and at first she was stiff and still. “I want you to think the best of me,” he said. “And I don’t think you would anymore.”

It took a moment, but April relaxed into his embrace, putting her arms around him as well. “I understand,” she said. Her voice sounded thick, but she laughed. “Guess it’s back to couples counseling?”

Jack looked over at Nawfal, who was busy flipping through something on a cell phone. “They’d never believe us,” he said.

The genie looked up when April handed him the ring. “You sure?” he asked.

They nodded together. “We’re sure,” April said.

The genie shrugged. “Suit yourselves,” he said. He squeezed his hand into a fist, and when he opened it the rings were gone. “You still have a wish, though.”

After the genie and his lamp were gone, vanished in a shimmering veil of light, Jack and April were on their computers, checking their bank balances and booking spots on a cruise. Jack input the numbers that April read from a small card that seemed to be made of solid silver, and they both grinned like children as they made their plans.

Day Thirty-one: Everything

The aging Post-Its on the inside of the front door read, in order:

WALLET
PHONE
KEYS
WALLET!!

Gus sighed, put his keys carefully on the hook by the door, walked back to his desk and get the wallet from the upper right-hand drawer. He put it in his back right pocket, went back to the door, and went out.

He looked at the Post-Its just before the door closed, grabbed the keys off the hook, and left.

Another sticker, this one taped right in the middle of his steering wheel, read: DID YOU LOCK THE DOOR?

He checked his right wrist. The rubber band wasn’t on it – it was still on his left. He took his keys from the car’s ignition, carefully put them back into his jacket pocket, and got out of the car. He trudged back up to his apartment, locked the door, and transferred the rubber band from his left wrist to his right.

When he got back to the car, he patted his pockets and panicked for a moment before he found them. Once he started the car, he turned on his phone and checked the messages he’d left himself the night before. His outings today included Ray’s antique shop, the supermarket, and the post office, in that order. That panicky feeling overtook him again until he noticed another Post-It stuck to his glove compartment. It read, “DON’T FORGET.”

That was the motto by which Gus Stubbins lived his life. Don’t forget. When he was a child, his parents had him tested for some kind of neurological disorder. They both figured that any child who not only forgot his homework, forgot to feed pets, who forgot his own birthday was probably living with some part of his brain left flapping in the breeze. The doctors they took him to, however, said no. After testing, quizzing and examining him for a few days they determined that, neurologically at least, there was nothing wrong with him. Everything that should be working in his brain was working. He just had a rotten memory. “Someone has to be at the far left of the bell curve,” Gus’ father said later. “I guess it’s you.”

He would grow up forgetful. He learned to adapt, to make allowances for his forgetfulness. The Post-Its, the notebook that he always kept on hand, the rubber band, the elaborate mnemonics that he used to remember names. This was his life, and it was what it was.

All things being equal, though, he’d rather it wasn’t.

His GPS got him to the antique store and stopped in. His notes reminded him to ask after Ray’s new baby and to check for anything new to pick up for his mother’s birthday. There were a few things that felt right – a cobalt blue bottle with a lead seal, a small wooden dog that wagged its tail when you moved it. There was a small, intricately etched watch, but he felt like that wouldn’t really suit her. He picked up the bottle and the dog and a cut-glass vase and brought them to Ray.

“Good choices,” Ray said. “For your mother?”

Gus nodded. “I guess her birthday’s coming up soon. I figure I can get a few things and choose.”

“Well, I truly appreciate it, man.” He handed beck the change and gestured to the phone that Gus was still carrying. “Where you off to next?” Ray, like most of the people who grew up with Gus in that town, knew full well how bad his memory was, and most of them took it in stride. They never expected him to remember names, and had their own ways to make his life less complicated.

Gus flipped open the phone. “Supermarket,” he said. “Looks like I let the fridge go again.”

“Yikes,” Ray said. “Well, good luck. I hear there’s a sale on. Got any coupons?”

Gus checked his wallet. There were two coupons in there for paper towels and dishshoap. He held them up, smiled wanly, and thanked Ray. As he walked away, Ray called him back to get his purchases. When he was younger, this would have caused Gus’ face to go bright red, and a feeling of shame to fill him from head to toe. Now he just went back, took the bag, thanked Ray again, and went back to his car.

The list on his phone guided him through the supermarket with pinpoint precision, filling up his cart quickly. He had to check the supplemental DO NOT BUY list a few times. There was nothing like ending up with three gallons of milk in the refrigerator when you were a one bowl a day cereal eater.

He got in the car and checked his phone again. Post Office. His stomach tightened for a moment, until he noticed again the Post-It on the glove compartment that read, “DON’T FORGET.” He sighed and slumped in his seat. Again. It was right there and he forgot again. He popped open the compartment and took out the bills that needed to go out. They were stamped and ready to go – one less thing to worry about. The only note in his phone was that he was to buy stamps – a sheet of twenty at 44 cents each.

The lady working at the post office didn’t know him, so there was no friendly banter. She looked at him a little funny when he checked his phone, put it in his pocket, and then took it out and checked it again. Then he pushed up the sleeve of his jacket, looked at his right wrist, and relaxed visibly. He purchased his stamps, looked in his wallet again, and realized he had just spent the rest of his money. His heart sank at the thought of going to an ATM, but he had no choice. At the bank around the corner, he looked around a few times to make sure no one was watching, pulled a small slip of paper from behind his driver’s license, quickly keyed in his PIN, and hid the slip again.

Money retrieved, he got back in his car, set the GPS, and headed home.

What surprised visitors about Gus’ home – on those rare occasions he had them – was just how clean it was. Spotless, even. There were no dishes in the sink, no clothes on the floor, no empty pizza boxes on the counter or Chinese delivery cartons moldering in the fridge. There were, however, notes. Lots of notes.

Post-Its in a dozen different colors reminded him of what to do on what day – yellow was Sunday, blue Monday, and so on. The walls of his living room were a huge calendar, with reminders like RENT and ELECTRICITY and PHONE written alongside less common chores as WORK or GO TO BED @ 11:00 on nearly every square. Different colored string went out to photos or lists tacked to the periphery of the calendar, and he was always adding to it.

He came in and took off his shoes at the door. He hung the keys on the key hook, put his wallet back in the top right-hand drawer of his desk, and studied the calendar for a moment. Then he put his shoes back on, went back out to his car, got the bags from the antique store and the supermarket, and brought them in.

As he was putting away groceries, he tipped over a two-liter bottle of ginger ale. That bottle hit the bag from the antique store, which tipped over, dropping most of its contents onto the kitchen floor. Gus had only a moment to register what was happening before the wooden dog and, more importantly, the cobalt blue bottle hit the tile. The dog, of course, was okay. The bottle was not.

Pieces of blue glass spread out, insinuating themselves into the carpet rapidly. Gus reached out quickly to one of the many stacks of notes that he kept all around the house and scribbled, CLEAN UP GLASS before it left his mind and he ended up with a shard of it in his foot that night.

He put away the last of the groceries, including that treasonous bottle of ginger ale, and closed the door.

There was a man standing there.

Gus leapt back and then howled in pain as a thin shard of cobalt blue glass jabbed into his heel. “Oh, dammit, dammit, dammit!” Gus yelled, holding his foot. Blood was already starting to well up under the sock. He wanted to write DO LAUNDRY, but that would involve walking back to the kitchen, which would almost certainly mean another piece of glass. Probably in the other heel.

The man in his kitchen looked utterly unconcerned. He was handsome, if you were into tall, dark, well-dressed men. He was wearing spotlessly white clothes that made his olive skin and black hair look even darker, had a heavy gold earring in one ear, and was wearing a pair of sunglasses. The look he was giving Gus over the gold rims of his sunglasses was one of bored disdain.

“Who the hell are you?” Gus yelled. As bad as his memory was, it wasn’t so bad that he would forget letting someone into his own house, much less someone who really didn’t look like he was from around there.

The man sighed ostentatiously. “So it’s one of these, is it?” The man’s accent was slight, but distinct, and Gus couldn’t place it. He straightened up and took off the sunglasses. “You may call me Nawfal. I am one of the ancient and powerful Djinn, cursed by the ancient kings of Qaryat al-fau to an eternity of servitude. By breaking the seal, you have summoned me. By ancient compact, I am to grant you one wish.” He took off the sunglasses, folded them up, and slipped them into the shirt pocket. “And no, you may not ask for more wishes.”

Gus hopped to the sofa in the living room, trying to keep blood off the carpet, and gingerly felt his foot. “What?” he asked. “What compact? What wishes?” He winced as he tried to take off his sock without getting blood on anything. “How did you get in my apartment?”

The genie walked over to him, grabbed Gus’ foot, and nearly turned him upside down. Gus squawked, but was helpless against the man’s surprisingly strong grip. “I need this,” Nawfal said. He held out a hand and the shard of glass – which was smaller than Gus had thought – slid from his heel and fell into the genie’s palm, where it turned into a pale blue mist. The genie then spit in his hand and rubbed Gus’ bloody heel.

There was a moment of chill in Gus’ foot, and then the pain was gone. The genie lowered him to the floor again, gently. “There,” Nawfal said. “Now we can continue without any of these distractions. You have one wish.” He sat in a chair opposite Gus and looked around. “Interesting place you have here,” he said. A tall glass appeared in his hand, a chilled drink complete with a straw and an umbrella. “What’s all this?”

Gus massaged his heel. “It’s my memory,” he said. “It doesn’t stay in my head, so I keep it there. Who are you?”

The genie raised an eyebrow. “I told you.”

“No you didn’t. Who are you?”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m-” Gus cut himself off. The genie smiled and sipped his drink.

“I am a genie,” Nawfal said. “You do know what a genie is, don’t you?”

Gus thought for a moment. “A myth.”

“Yes, of course. A myth.” Nawfal’s face went sour at the word. “Well, a myth just healed your foot, and a myth is talking to you now. And this myth would really like to get back to his bottle. I was nearly finished a very good book.” He sipped the drink again and it vanished. “So let’s get to it. One wish. What will it be?” He glanced over at the wall.

Gus followed his amused gaze. For a moment, unexpectedly, he saw his apartment that way other people probably did. The vast and sprawling calendars on the walls, with previous months carefully folded up and kept on the bookshelf he’d bought at Ray’s. Post-It notes everywhere you look, telling him to do stupidly simple things. BRUSH TEETH. TURN OFF STOVE. PANTS.

For a moment, he saw that he lived in the home of a very sad man. A man who could barely get through his day. A man who had grown up a child, unable to perform like a normal adult without other people helping him along. In his mind, Ray’s smile looked like a smirk. The girl at the supermarket was almost certainly laughing at him. There goes Gus. The empty-headed moron. He’d forget his own head if it weren’t screwed on. His parents. They must have been so disappointed….

He put his head in his hands and tried hard not to cry. Nawfal didn’t offer support. He merely sat back and crossed his legs.

Gus whispered something. Nawfal leaned forward. “What was that?”

“I wish I could remember,” Gus said, only a little louder. “I wish I could remember everything.”

Nawfal winced, knowing Gus wouldn’t see it. “Really? Everything?”

“Yes,” Gus said. His voice was still quiet. “I don’t want to live like this anymore.”

Nawfal shrugged and stood up. “Okay,” he said. “It’s all yours. Good luck.”

Gus didn’t notice Nawfal vanish, or the rest of the shards of blue glass turn to mist and fade away. Gus didn’t notice when he fell to the floor, shaking, or when his nose and ears started bleeding.

He was too busy remembering. Everything. The universe burst forth from its singularity, and Gus remembered it. Atoms formed, gathered into stars, which gathered into galaxies, and Gus followed every atom, every star, every galaxy. On countless worlds in the cosmos, worlds close by and worlds that no human will ever know exist, life burst forth, and Gus’s mind was filled with visions of all the ways it could exist. Evolution held sway, exchanging one form for another, only to let them die when a third was more suited to the changes that came over the millennia. Gus watched every one of them, everything that crawled and hunted and fled and died. Every glacier that inched its way across the planet, every asteroid that wiped out species. Every form of intelligence in the cosmos was there in Gus’ head, and that only compounded the problem.

In that instant of rememberance, Gus saw love and hate, acts of kindness and evil both great and small. He saw emperors conquer kingdoms, peasants overthrow royal lines that had persisted for centuries. He saw bloody wars of hate and choice, genocide of every flavor. He saw philosophers and idealists happily murder each other. The rich let the poor starve. The poor rose up and slaughtered the rich wholesale, around innumerable stars all across the cosmos.

He saw love, countless acts of love and lust and gentleness and kindness in uncountable combinations. Parents birthing, raising, celebrating, mourning their children. Mundane life after mundane life blossomed in his memory and was replaced by millions, billions – trillions more. All at once, Gus knew how many civilizations there were in the universe, and the number baffled him. He knew how many individual lives were being lived just at that moment, and it was beyond his comprehension. He watched every animal, every plant in its struggle to survive, every bacterium, every virus in its short existence of procreation and predation.

His head was filled with all there ever was, and every instant that passed added to the memories that were already tearing apart his fragile human brain.

He remembered everything.

Everything.