My oatmeal for your love
“It’s possible,” Rachel is saying to me kindly, “to want to like something more than you actually like it.” We are talking about the guy I’m dating who has three very large, very beautiful dogs. We are talking about my failed efforts to like dogs. Any dogs in general and his in particular. I am telling Rachel that when I walk into his apartment, they bark and my knees lock. That once on a hot day, they were panting and I started panting with them in the throes of a panic attack. This could be a deal breaker, she is telling me. But I cannot afford to keep breaking deals so I’m trying very hard right now to like dogs.
“You can’t force it though,” she says and pity pours out of her warm brown eyes. For a moment, I drown in it. I remember eating breakfast with my father when I was a kid. I do not like oatmeal but he does, so I force it down. The lumps solidify in the back of my throat making me feel like I’m crying. Still, when I finish I smile, holding out an empty bowl, a few plump grains sticking on my chin. Waiting for his approval even then.
I shake this scene away and turn to Rachel, “True. You can’t force love. That’s what all my ex-boyfriends tell me anyway.” Rachel laughs at this and that’s why we’re friends.
These days, I eat most of my meals alone in my kitchen with a view of a stained refrigerator. I’ve memorized all the magnets but forget where they came from. At some point, I do not tell Rachel, you just get tired of the voice in your own head and not having anyone to share it with. The potential for every freckle to be cancer for instance, or the way the mailman pronounces the word “schedule,” and what does an eggplant have to do with an egg? When it is just you, alone, you don’t have to articulate these thoughts to think them. If this goes on long enough, you’ll be left with a void for a personality. All the thoughts you never put in words hang around you like a spider web and who wants to date the woman in the spider web? Shame on you is what my father would say when I was being greedy or overreacting. Shame, shame, shame is what I tell myself now when I begin to choke on lumps of self-pity.
My pride for a chance to play
So I have a guy who has some dogs. So what? At some point, you get past the notion of deal breakers. You become a kid in a cafeteria again: my string cheese for your Oreos? My juice box for your peanut butter sandwich? What I mean is, you will try—heroically, desperately—to make any deals you can.
I watch a lot of game shows lately. Which is not something I ever imagined doing, or at least, admitting to. The game show I like most is the one hosted by Monty Hall. Of course I am watching this in syndication lest—god forbid—I ever get current with anything that’s happening in the present (shame, shame). On the show, everyone makes deals and no one knows what they will be getting on the other side of the stick. There seem to be a lot of short ends. Yet people keep clamoring to play.
“First of all, the audience. My god,” I tell Rachel, as she sits down to watch her first episode with me. “People get dressed up crazy for attention. You know, because if they catch the host’s eye then they maybe get a chance at it. To play, I mean. There was a couple the other night,” she nods and I continue, “and they were wearing these like, sequins body suits.”
They looked itchy. They looked mesmerizing. I don’t tell Rachel the most amazing thing about the couple; they didn’t get called. The camera kept panning over them and their earnest, sparkling faces. But they never got a chance. What must it have felt like, I kept thinking, to stand there in all those sequins just waiting to be picked the whole time? What did they say to each other on the car ride home? I could see them sitting in their itchy suits, facing the road, each of them lost in thought, humiliation gathered in the space between their chairs.
“Then there are the ‘zonks,’” I explain next. “They’re like booby prizes that a contestant might ‘win’ instead of a trip to a ski resort or a $14,000 check.” I hear my speech quicken as I describe the way it works. Stupid, how much I like this show (shame, shame).
The zonks could be anything—a room full of cacti, a broken bicycle, a giant pair of shoes. I get caught up wondering things like, “How will they take home thirty-four gerbils?” And, “What are they going to do with all that ham?” I wonder if anyone ever came to the studio audience expecting to play and was called on instead to be someone else’s zonk.
After the show, Rachel puts on her coat and grabs her purse.
“I really think you should consider it though,” she tells me one last time. “It’s not like it’s one dog. He's got three!” She hugs me goodbye. “You can’t be with him if you’re in a constant state of fear, can you?”
Sometimes, I hate Rachel. When she acts all Big-Sistery. I shut the door behind her and am glad she’s gone.
Fingers for bloody paws
I dated a man for two years. Then he left me. When we lived together I had a recurring dream. I was standing somewhere dark with a spotlight on me, like I was the star of a one-woman show. I had a knife and a countertop and I stood there and cut off my left pinky.
“How bout now?” I asked no one.
And then I cut off the index finger too. “How bout now?”
And then maybe a hand. My whole arm. “How bout now?” I kept asking.
It was the kind of almost-nightmare you don’t wake up from screaming. I’d lie there for a long time with my eyes open, touching my left hand with my right.
When I was a little girl, I thought love was about two people matching. I thought there must be a little boy somewhere who would be a perfect fit for me. The first time I had sex I remember the kind of instant revelation, the everything-I-used-to-think-was-wrong phenomenon. It was like forcing two puzzle pieces together. Relationships are more like bargains really. Everybody weighing what they are willing to give up.
“Relationships are supposed to teach you more about yourself,” Rachel said once, sounding like a women’s magazine. In a way, she’s right. Since I started dating the guy with the dogs, I’ve grown familiar with my fear. Familiar is not the same as comfortable though. What I mean is, I now know things I did not know before; that it is their teeth that scare me most, for instance, and that sometimes their claws bleed when they get their nails cut, and that this image haunts me at night. Now, when I hear the clip of Comet’s nails against the hardwood, his bloody paws come to mind without my having to think about them. But still they do not scare me any less.
The guy with the dogs brings his dogs with him everywhere. There is dog hair on his jacket, a dog smell in his car, their pictures on the background of his phone. We are never without them. I persist in overcoming it though, in trying to. Each time I feel that stiffness in my legs I remind myself of Monty Hall’s game show and all the contestants clamoring to play. If I bow out now someone else will choose him and I might be left with a zonk or nothing at all. Even as I think this I imagine all the better prizes that might be waiting behind other doors without any dogs at all (shame).
Mental reserves for trivial decisions
My father calls. “I read a study today,” he says. “It said every decision a person makes uses stores of mental energy, leaving less for other tasks.”
Apparently, when you choose to eat a salad over a slice of cake you are exhausting your mental resources. First, the energy to choose an action and then the energy to repress the opposite action, also known as self-control. Later, when faced with another decision, your energy reserves are lower and you will struggle to make the right choice.
"You have to prioritize,” he says. “The big decisions from the trivial ones. Save up your mental energy for what counts."
According to my father, the President handles this problem really well. He doesn’t make any trivial decisions. When he gets dressed, there are two suits: black and blue. He wears whichever one is clean. When he gets hungry, he eats whatever is on the table. That way, later, he can decide on the big stuff like whether or not we drop a bomb or send our troops.
“Hm,” I say more to myself than to my father. “Sometimes it’s hard for me to distinguish. Let alone prioritize. What type of decision am I even making: small, large, life? Sometimes, you know, I can’t even tell.”
“I know,” he says. “You need to get better at that. That's what I wanted to say.” He hangs up.
Picking a show to watch should be a trivial decision but after a day where I haven’t once used my voice, the small decisions feel bigger. I’m sure all those people on the show making deal after deal get exhausted by it too. The decision making process. Analysis Paralysis is what it is. They lose track of the fact that there is real money on the line that—despite the studio, the screaming audience, Monty Hall’s poker face—despite it all, this is what is called their Real Life.
Your statistics for my gut instincts
There’s a famous question about the show that goes like this: There are 3 doors. One holds a brand new car, the other two hold goats. You can’t see what’s behind any of them. You choose Door #1. Monty Hall opens Door #2 and sure enough, it’s a goat. At this point you can either switch your choice or stay with Door #1. What do you do?
I guess a bunch of PhD’s met up to work this out. Most of them agree that, statistically speaking, it’s in your favor to switch doors. But they disagree about why. In reality it doesn’t matter because in Real Life, hardly anyone ever chooses to switch.
I understand this false logic. Most people make a choice and they stick with it. Even if it might be wrong. Even if there’s a big chance it won’t work out. They like to see their decisions to the end.
If you ask me, the real question about the game should be this—why are people so anxious to keep playing? After they make that first choice, it’s hard to stop. Once a contestant is chosen to play, he just wants to stay in no matter what. Keep making deals until he gets either the grand prize or the zonk. That’s the funny thing. Even when you do stay with Door #1 and get the brand new car, you’ll just wind up trading the grand prize for the zonkiest zonk later on. You’ll go home with something nobody wants to be left with, like a group of PhD students arguing about goats. Because like the study says, the more decisions you make, the worse you are at making them. And in a show like this, it’s a terrible problem to have. In Real Life, it’s pretty bad too.
My kingdom for a zonk
It is late at night and I just saw a woman trade two brand new Pontiacs for a huge rubber hamburger with a side of rubber fries. Zonk. She’d been playing for a while and then this. Before it happened, she had this big smile and when it happened, it took a minute for that smile to fade. I picture her mental reserves completely drained by that point. There she was, having won her big burger and having lost all the rest, and she’s smiling this dumb smile until the realization breaks over her like an egg. I feel the oatmeal lump in the back of my throat and start crying. I don’t stop crying for a long time, not until after the credits roll (shame, shame, shame).
When I fall asleep I see images of Monty Hall feeding me oatmeal. Monty Hall is my father asking me to make deals. He keeps handing me spoonfuls and saying, “Shame.” I wake up and feel sick to my stomach. When I run to the bathroom, I throw up something that looks lumpy and thick.
One fear for another fear
I wake up and wish I were the President and that someone would give me clothes to wear, food to eat without my having to think about it. There used to be two doors that led to my bedroom. One from the kitchen and one from the living room. Every time I wanted to leave my bedroom I had to pick a door. When I started to date the guy with the dogs I covered up the second door with a tapestry. I’m not sure if this was a coincidence.
Tonight the guy with the dogs comes over for dinner and because I talk about it so much he suggests we watch the show. He’s a sport and gets really into it, yelling at the contestants as if they can hear him. As if this wasn’t filmed decades ago. I know he probably wants to like it more than he actually does.
Later, I ask him what an eggplant has to do with an egg and he laughs and brushes the stray hairs off of my forehead. He is a nice guy with strong shoulders. Even if he is a guy with dogs.
Later he kisses me hard on the mouth and it strikes me that Rachel must have been wrong. You can force yourself to like something if you want to.
In bed, I dream of the game show and this time Rachel is the host. I am wearing my oversized pajamas and when she calls me up, I know it's out of pity. I trade my fear of loneliness for a fear of dogs, then I trade my fear of dogs for a fear that the guy I am dating is the zonk which comes along with the fear that the guy I am dating is actually the grand prize after all. I make the mistake of trading both fears, hoping to double down. On the final trade, I get the zonk: it’s me. The audience is full of goats.
When I wake up, the guy with the dogs is making breakfast. I pray he is not making oatmeal as I listen to him through my closed bedroom door.
I keep trying not to wonder which one of us is behind it. Which one of us got the chance to play.
I keep trying not to wonder what’s behind the other door.
Illustration by Carolyn Tripp