Episode 1 – 09/08/2008

Of Fate, Free Will, & Anaphylactic Hypersensitivity

I see her while waiting in line at one of those cookie-cutter burger joints, the ubiquitous sort with sticky plastic chairs, sticky plastic floors, and bathrooms you wouldn’t wash a dog in. And of course there’s the smell, the sweet reek of grease-steeped everything: burgers, fries, shakes, employees—one big drippy clot of wrong. Necessarily this includes me as well, but then life occasionally demands sacrifice, and I would sacrifice many things for french fries. And have.

But I digress.

I am patiently waiting my turn when a gaggle of tweenage girls squall in through the door, dragging a wave of piss-hot air into the lobby. I wrinkle my nose and clench my teeth but there is no avoiding them—they are instantly everywhere, like maggots on a rotting corpse. They seem to move as one mass, each dressed in a matching red bathing suit, a damp towel wrapped around slender shoulders or a slightly too-plump waist. Hideous fat toes wriggle from within a mass of green and pink sandals, slippery with wet; a scant few wear sneakers instead, water from their legs dampening what socks are present, saturating the canvas and ruining the floor with kidney-shaped prints rank with chlorine.

I nearly dismiss them all in this one lump sum, but then I catch a glimpse of bare feet and follow them up too-thin legs, past hand-me-down shorts, and on to their owner.

And there she is.

She is the second-shortest of her group, perhaps eight years old, with matte blue-gray eyes—steely, scared, and sad—peering through thin curtains of pooldamp blonde hair, half of it smashed crudely behind her ears, licking her neck. Ripening bruises purple her thin, pale arms, giving her the appearance of a fallen nestling, thin and floppy, not even worth a cat’s time. Or a trapped bird, stuck in a house, banging against the windows, not dead yet but dying to get out.

The girls jockey for position as they queue for soft serve and french fries, doing their part to contribute to the obesity epidemic. But she just sets herself in place, sliding in without a word or an elbow, neither first nor last. On the surface she looks just like them but I can clearly see she is not. What they are is a neighborhood swim team or club of some sort, and she is not a team person. She is “take your sister with you.” And she is “but Mom.” And she is “no more buts, you take your little sister with you or so help me.” And she is ignored, here and everywhere, yet content in her moments, and in this moment she is simply and wholly in line for an ice cream cone, just as I am in line for my dinner, and I know her.

I know her.

A void opens near the counter and I instinctively step forward, filling the space to keep things whole. While I patiently wait my turn, I am as always trying to monitor my surroundings, watching for threats, but my attention keeps getting drawn back to this noisy horde of girls, their pudgy fingers fumbling with fistfuls of paper and silver, unable to decide what they want.

I have already decided.

The cool air sends chills down my sweat-soaked spine, raising gooseflesh in anticipation of something that has not fully hit me yet. The back of my mind is still putting it together, spinning, measuring, cutting as I watch the girl, alone in this crowd just like me. She does not want to be here. She wants to be else: somewhere else, someone else. She seeks focus, calm amidst the storm, and finds it by staring at the coins in her tiny palm. She fails to notice me watching her, sees nothing at all but the coins, the coins, the coins she got from daddy.

She drops them when I take her.

“He’s not so tall,” was my first thought.

It seems odd to think that now, because back then everything seemed tall, surrounding. Even him, at first glance. But somehow I could tell it was an act, a lie. Beneath the trappings, the posturing, he was just average: average height, average build, a body built from more flight than fight. Average looks too, although I think I thought he was just a little bit handsome back then, even if he was clearly headed towards the low end of the spectrum as middle age dug its claws in. Gray hair hung like feathers in his face, peppered with bits of black where the dye didn’t wash out; it was the longest he’d ever worn it and the longest he ever would. His eyes were brown and warm that day, flecked with just enough green to pry the word “hazel” from witness’ lips. Intentional, as was everything: the scuffed black boots, the thrift store trench, the dirty baseball cap, even the months-old beard, scratchy and uncomfortable and completely atypical for him.

He wasn’t someone you would notice on the street, or on a subway, or in line for fast food. He was a nobody. And that, of course, is why he was what he was.

Some people claim we are in total control of our lives. They say we have the power to change our present and our future just by making a series of small choices from the menu of life, slowly building up the story of who we are, and who we wish to be.

Others say our lives are predetermined, that we’re simply living out a set of instructions like a character in a video game. Just a bunch of pixels pretending to have free will, controlled by a bit of code that determines everything: hunger, thirst, fear, and fury.

When I was eight years old, I was abducted from a fast food restaurant by a man who took me, in all likelihood, because of a small splotch of mayonnaise on his hamburger. And so I believe in neither free will nor predetermination.

I believe in condiments.