The Toaster Ship
(a.k.a. The Brave Little Toastership Lollypop)
The bitterest person I know invited me to lunch today. Was it to further gripe to me about her horrible life or, in some random bout of insanity, had she decided to forgive me for transgressions long past from my own recollection? Her tone had been cryptically lighthearted – how could I turn her down? It registered then, after hanging up the phone in a bewildered stupor, that I actually felt disappointed that she didn't act how I expected her to.
She was like a toaster. Sleek with symmetrical curves and apparently functional, but inside were hot coils of cutting wit, dangerous to anything fed the slim slots other than the prescribed bread products of appeasement. Then out of nowhere, my toaster also cooked vegetables! This sort of mutiny would have been laughable if it didn't cause so much confusion.
So, with a certain guarded intrigue, I arrived at our lunch date. There was a particular obligation involved in dealing with these toaster people - like a safety hazard to small children or unwary passerbies. I scanned for these potential unwitting targets as I waited at a window table in the quaint Main Street diner. My restless hands rearranged the condiments and fingered the rim of my glass of water countless times during the minutes before she arrived.
Then, without niceties or pretense, she was before me, exuding giddiness – a trait I had never thought I'd associate with her, my once-reliable toaster. She hastily sat down, casting me a quick, broad smile and awkwardly shoving a small package at me. I gave her a questioning look, holding the package in my hands, but not looking at or opening it.
"You won't believe what I found!" she gushed, haphazardly seating herself across from me. Her head flicked suggestively towards the square thing wrapped in brown paper held between my now-still hands. She was like a funhouse mirror image of herself – upside down and oblong in strange directions. Unprepared for this distorted reflection of the person I knew, I didn't know what else to do but follow her directions.
I carefully separated the folds of paper from the tape and peeled them away from the object inside. Already beyond the level of normal surprise at such unusual circumstances, I didn't even flinch when I found nothing more than a recordable VHS tape, bare except for a white label on its front face, the title scribbled into obscurity by an angry pen. I held it out for her, Vanna White style, hoping against hope to show her in a new light just what she had gotten so excited over. Unfazed, her eyes continued to bore into me with their unquenchable eagerness.
"What is this?" I asked in the quiet voice used when calming a hysterical child.
"It's not mine," she stated as if I'd asked if it were, making herself the image of the culprit child with an innocent shrug.
"Well," I cleared my throat, searching for words to make sense of this madness, "um, where did you get it?"
"I found it."
"You found it?" She nods.
"Well maybe it belongs to someone." (Maybe you should apologize.)
"It did, but someone didn't want it anymore." (No, she started it!)
"Uh-huh." (Don't lie to me)
"See, I was walking Spencer around the block and the trash truck had just drove away from this house. You know how careless those blue-collar trashmen are – it's okay as long as they get most of the garbage into the truck. So, of course, there's some paper blowing around the people's driveway 'cause of that careless guy but there's also something black lying in the street. I picked it up and it was this tape." My eyes fell on the tape in my hands and I dropped it with a clatter on the table, realizing where it had been. I pictured her shaking her fist at the slowly disappearing garbage truck, cursing the totality of our un-ecologically aware population, and shook my head.
"So?" I say, growing angry.
"So, I bet it was some pathetic porno tape or something – you know how sick people are – or maybe it was something interesting…" She leaned over the table at me to enhance her point and, instinctively, like an animal of prey, I reclined back in my seat.
"Okay, cut the crap, what is it? What's on the damn tape?" I hissed at her, folding my arms indignantly. At that point I didn't really care that she wanted to keep up this little game of intrigue. She sighed through her whole body.
"Well, when I got home I watched it – after cleaning it -" she added pointedly, continuing to draw out her story, "And it was just some family video – you know, somebody had set up a tripod to tape themselves and their spouse enjoying a holiday." She paused for dramatic effect. My glare convinced her to continue without having to voice my reaction. "When I was just about to turn it off because it was just boring crap, the husband and wife start arguing! You could tell it was one of those things that had been boiling under the surface for a while and is just coming out now." I pictured the toaster sparking with a power surge and burning my bread.
"Yeah, what were they arguing about?" I ask, half-heartedly humoring her as my anger dissipated slightly into apathy.
"Clipping toenails! … Well, and fingernails too, I guess." Her voice rose and I cringed as some other patrons turned to look at us. My furrowed eyebrows and placating hand motion asked her to keep her voice down. She nodded and continued in a hushed, but still urgent, tone. "Get this, the woman was mad because when he cut his nails, he would leave the clippings all over – in the carpet, on the bed – (disgusting if you ask me, but not worth a divorce like this woman was talking about). Of course, being a guy, he doesn't think this is any big deal. His apathy makes her even more furious until they're yelling at each other and then she's crying! Crying and screaming at him, mostly incoherent, but I did catch one thing she said…"
This was absurd. My one cocked eyebrow told her so, but my silence allowed her to finish her epic tale of ridiculous domestic disputes.
"She kept saying 'You killed my cat! He ate your goddamn toenail and choked! You killed him, you bastard!' She was absolutely hysterical!"
All the tension of that luncheon – and we hadn't even eaten yet – was released in the only way possible – through uncontrollable laughter that caused me to double over, gasping for air.
"What?" I panted, "Why would you leave someone because they -" more giggles "- didn't throw their toenail clippings away?!"
Now she leaned back in her chair, a smug smirk on her face. "Because people are messed up. That's why."
And we both had a good laugh at that.
After finally catching our breath, ordering food, and enjoying a lively conversation over our lunch, we broke off the engagement on such pleasant terms that I had to tell that defiant voice inside of me to shove it when it suggested I reinstate my former disappointment with my friend's changed ways.
It should have seemed unromantic and tragic to be without the challenge of the relationship with my embittered friend. After all, when life is apparently flowing smoothly, we're usually the cause of our own demise. We set up situations for ourselves to create intrigue, challenge, and discomfort. Now, here I was, not grieving the loss of this personality, but feeling motivated by its new energy. Perhaps she would never be a very positive person, but at least she was interested and therefore interesting. The cracked sidewalk healed before me, yet I watched relationships sever and fall apart everywhere in my midst.
"What's with the armband?" I asked my nephew, edging up behind him in the crowded room of milling people. I could tell family gatherings were not his forte and hoped a little uninvited attention would increase his comfort level.
He looked down at the slightly frayed orange fabric band with the noticeable white Nike advertisement swooshing across his lower arm. His fingers touched it briefly, self-consciously. "It's just this thing me and my girlfriend do – we each have one. Shows we love each other, you know?" Through square wire-rimmed glasses, his hazel eyes looked at me, pleaded with me, to understand and not judge too harshly. I smiled warmly at his long handsome face of thin, defined features and clear skin.
"Oh yeah? I'm glad you're happy, bud," I responded earnestly and clasped my hand around his shoulder, giving it a good squeeze. He appeared momentarily surprised at the lack of mockery in my voice, but relaxed into my sideways hug, a small laugh of relief catching in his throat.
Suddenly, we were thrust into one another as Uncle Bernard went spilling into us. "Did you see that guy? He just went non-linear on me!" The old man bellowed at us, hastily adjusting his displaced toupee and coke-bottle glasses.
"Uh, no, I didn't…" I stammered, trying to sound helpful. "Should, um, me and Brian go calm this guy down or something? You know, get him a drink…" I trailed off, at a loss for how to actually fulfill my offer. Meanwhile, Brian shrunk into the smallest size his six-foot frame could become, obviously not wanting to be dragged into his ridiculous family's escapades.
"Nah," Uncle Bernard waved a hand dismissively at us, "The guy was working on four degrees anyway – not worth your time… but seriously, who invites these people?" I shrugged and felt Brian relax next to me since it appeared he wouldn't be cajoled into leaving his safe wall. "I swear people are getting dumber," he continued, still somewhat flustered, "I mean just the other day I was driving to take Pi – you've met my cat, right? – to the vet for her shots and some cretin throws a taco, yes a taco, at my car! It surprised me so much I nearly hit the car in front of me because I didn't noticed they'd stopped!" He shook his head in gesture encompassing his pity for and distaste with the smaller brained portion of the population.
"I know. What is this world coming to?" My mock sympathy went unnoticed by the disgruntled man who merely furrowed his eyebrows and wandered off to share his story of the world's deterioration with some other unsuspecting relative. When the older man parted company, Brian further relaxed, sinking heavily against the wall. "Yeah," I sincerely sympathized, "It's always interesting coming to these gatherings, huh?" Nudging the boy's arm, I asked as I started to walk away, "Hey, want me to get you something to drink?"
"No thanks." He half-smiled, so I left him to himself – his preferred status, I assumed – and meandered through the clusters of people in the packed living room until I found the kitchen. Once there, I was unsurprised to once again encounter Uncle Bernard, ranting to another throng of relatives. This time it was about butter. Oh yes.
"So you see, theoretically, if you continued to cut the stick in half, you'd never run out of butter because you'd continue to get half of a half of a half of a – well, you get the idea – and thus you don't have to worry about running out of butter as long as you cut it in half!" He smiled indulgently, cocking his head in a gesture of pride in his utter nerdiness that caused his toupee to slant precariously once more. I, on the other hand, had to suppress a peal of laughter that threatened to break free of my tightly sealed lips. When a cocky young nephew questioned his uncle's logic, I very nearly lost it.
Deliberating on every syllable to draw out its effect, he asked, "But what if the butter melts?" Carefully weighing the timing of his execution, the boy paused and then added sarcastically, "I think you might need a special knife to cut liquid butter." One side of his lip rose into a sneer as he accepted the appreciative laughter of his familial audience.
"Well," Uncle Bernard huffed, far past his boiling point, "I guess the theory didn't account for that." His staccato words tried for a counter-sarcastic note but fell short, leaving a silence in the kitchen thicker than his theoretically infinite butter.
"So…where could I find a nice cold drink around here?" I awkwardly broke the silence, edging past the disgraced Bernard to address the party's host.
The man and woman drive to a family function where they will have to speak and act cordially – "normally" – but for now, in their private world of disagreement they are silent and distant. As he drives, the man sits up straight, pressing his back against the seat and forcing it to conform to his shape when the person in the passenger seat will not. She leans against the door, staring out the window but occasionally casting longing glances at him. He doesn't catch these stolen looks with his eyes fixed on the road ahead.
He reaches to turn on the radio. She seizes that moment and his hand. He glances at her briefly in surprise but she just stares at him with emotionless eyes, holding his hand warmly between her own. After a few minutes of stiff acclimation, he relaxes into her touch. They ride the rest of the way in mutual silence – not yet having reached understanding but at least at the edge of the precipice.
As soon as the couple walked through the door, a bit past fashionably late, I could envision their ride here. I recognized the lingering pleas of a man who wants to be forgiven but proudly refuses to apologize and the subtle, soft aversion of a woman who does want to forgive him but wants to do so without compromising her own principles. They primarily sought out others to converse with, only coming back to one another for the expected exchange of niceties. Their façade was not noticeably undermined by anything they did or did not do save for my own freshly sparked interest in relationships, of which they were a prime example for my private research.
On a whim, with the events of the family party still lingering in my mind, I dialed my toaster-friend's number, not really having anything prepared to say to her if she picked up, and yet I wasn't hoping for the machine either. Unless it's terribly important, I never leave messages on answering machines. I loathe the monotony of "Just wanted to say 'Hi'…. Guess you're not home… Well, okay…I'll try again later…click". Yes, I should be touched that people care enough to call, but there's always some underlying issue they won't bring up on a machine if it would mean giving me the advantage of having time to brew on it before responding. Label me cynical…but then, maybe that's why I called the toaster that night.
"Oh! I'm so glad to hear from you!" She replied victoriously when I identified myself. She now apparently had the upper hand in a battle I didn't even know I'd entered simply because I'd called her within two days of our previous meeting.
Immediately upon receiving her reaction, I wished I hadn't called her. It would've just been better to leave her on her own, without figuring me in as a bounty, or perhaps a casualty. I felt as though somehow I'd been sucked into a horrible ordeal with my eyes wide open.
Why do toasters always have a setting so high that can burn the toast to a horrible crisp, which no decent human being would eat?
"I have GOT to tell you about what I saw today!" she continued, oblivious to my fears spiraling out of control on the other end of the line. After swallowing my rising emotions, I steeled myself to engage in battle to extract my burnt toast from the toaster.
"Let me guess – another mysterious package?" I asked, unable to muster much interest into my voice. I'd hoped that I could coerce her into willingly spilling her story, but it looked like I was going to have to extricate it from her with a knife.
"No…" She said, somewhat puzzled by my heavy sarcasm. "…But it did remind me of that a bit. You see, there was this couple walking down the sidewalk in front of me – hand in hand, you know, all cutesy – and they seemed so content. Then all of a sudden, this random man walks past them, does a double take, turns around and rips their hands apart, making this big scene! I couldn't believe it! Here I thought they were just a nice young couple enjoying a stroll…and then boom - scandal! No…they weren't just some innocent pair – they were illicit lovers – how deliciously intriguing is that? " Operation burnt bread retrieval: a success. And yet…the toast could still possibly be edible.
For some reason I felt the knot in my stomach unwinding as I realized that she hadn't taken me captive – it was the notion of exploring the complexity of relationships that possessed us both with equal intensity whether we had meant for it to or not. Because of this, I told her about my nephew and his girlfriend with their sweatbands as adolescent versions of symbolic wedding rings – a physical display to remind them of their mutual commitment. I balked momentarily at relating what I'd only felt about my other interest – the belated couple – but not what I'd seen for certain about their quarrel. Upon realizing that intuition started the two of us talking in the first place, I shed my fear of the subject's possible triviality. I related to my rapt listener, with a certain growing satisfaction and intrigue, the vision I'd had of the couple and how it had manifested itself as the way they interacted with others at the party.
Suddenly, we were wrapped up in a fabric of possibilities and open-ended questions that needed exploring, researching, postulating and answering. It became at once a more personal and yet collaborative endeavor for both of us.
For the next few weeks, the start of our collaborative adventure was put on hold as our respective careers kept the toaster and me secluded in our own separate worlds. Returned to the comfort zone of my job, my mind digressed from its former intrigue with other people's problems. I quickly became betrothed to the rhythm of my days and nights overlapping and my weeks spiraling into the next as I worked to accomplish the things that supposedly really matter in life – professional prestige and prosperity. However, another spontaneous phone call alerted me that my toast was not only done, but – Hallelujah! – unburnt. So off we went, my trusty appliance and I, to Main Street for people-watching under the façade of shopping.
It was in a craft and knickknack store that could only be described as close – like dense, oppressive morning fog – where we encountered our first 'ship, as we came to call the relationships we observed.
They never made more physical contact than the slight brushing of hands upon the exchange of an interesting object, but their eyes melted into one another in a tacit embrace more intimate than any touch. The one woman was older, easily in her fifties though still glowing with vitality, while the other was closer to her mid thirties but with the wisdom of many more years shining through her bright eyes.
My comrade and I exchanged glances. It was one of those times when you know that you and another person just simultaneously witnessed the same experience. There was an undeniable connection between us that I recognized when I saw the same rapport, only in a much more developed state, mirrored in these two women. Even after she averted her eyes from mine to keep tabs on our 'ship, I continued watching her. I wondered if we could ever reach such a high level of communication and intimacy. Or even want to. Weeks ago, the thought would have been absurd. It still was absurd. And yet, the reason why I did things now, why I got up in the morning to live life, was purely irrational – it was human. No longer did I look at her and see the bitterest person I knew, because I could actually say I knew her a little better now. But not completely. It is the unknown that intrigues us…for unknown reasons. And considering how I stood with my now-trusty appliance sending me in circles where I waxed philosophical in a most uncharacteristic way, I was deep into personally uncharted realms.
Then again, it all seemed too cliché. It was like a movie where you just know the two characters the story focuses on are going to hook up – and, of course, overcome insurmountable odds to do so. How despicable. In real life, nothing is that straightforward. Especially when you're considering relationships with household appliances – another sign you need to reacquaint yourself with your shrink. Since I can't afford to reinstate my very expensive psychoanalyst (who has major issues with the word shrink – go figure), I made a unanimous decision with the various committees of my head to not take this relationship anywhere beyond platonic co-conspirators.
My shrink says that generations habitually repeat the mistakes of their parents, only displacing the dysfunctions into the challenges of their contemporary time period and the issues of their particular global scene. Everywhere I go, I see little plaques proclaiming "Help me Lord, for I have become my mother after all" or some variation that are supposed to amusing or comforting. I cringe realizing the truth of it. But no, I always swore I would do things different and even if my actions were the same, I always seemed to end up with a similar end result. A chord played in a different key.
My mom used to have those sort of relationships that drag across the platonic line. Because of the nature of my father, they were dangerous digressions comparable to sidling, scantily clad at that, into a demilitarized zone. Even though, for me, this wasn't like having extramarital relationship since I was single, having such indefinite boundaries with someone else just seemed…wrong. It was one of those ingrained Freudian notions that's difficult to paint over without several coats of primer.
On my way home late at night after one of our excursions, I drove past a house that was ablaze with brilliant orange fire choked with thick black smoke. Emergency vehicles, their red and blue lights orbiting frantically, clustered on the street and lawn in front of the house. I was surprised to note the absence of the home's former residents – there was no one standing outside, wringing their hands or soaking their spouse's shoulder with heaving cries of disbelief. Perhaps they'd been taken away in an ambulance…but no, there were two ambulances protruding from the edges of the vehicular assembly. Then my eye caught a slight movement off to the left of the house and its crowd.
I watched as a man and woman slipped away from the chaos towards the vacant property next door, their progress stunted as they collided with each other's mouths and bodies, hands interlocked and arms entwined. I thought I could hear faint laughter drifting above the smoke and the roar of the flames engulfing their material life. Yet they didn't look back as they staggered off towards the seclusion of the partially wooded lot.
I wasn't sure if I was sickened by their blatant disregard for the Samaritans risking their lives to save their burning house or amused by their joyful freedom from the cares of worldly possessions.
The next day, the story was in the paper. It simply reported that the house was unsalvageable but the couple who had lived there was doing fine. More than fine, I'd say. It gave me a strange pleasure to have been the only one privy to such a strange juxtaposition.
One day we were eating lunch in one of those franchise sit-down restaurants that occupies every town of population 1,000 or more, discussing the latest 'ships we'd seen. The waiter approached our booth with downcast eyes. He was a young man with softly flopping black hair combed forward, wearing partially rimmed rectangular glasses. When he reached us, he lifted his eyes, attempting a smile, and tried to imbue his monotonous spiel with an upbeat tone. Once informed of the soup of the day and lunch specials, my companion ordered a drink and an explanation for our waiter's melancholia.
"Uh, my girlfriend and I just broke up," he explained after a moment of uncertainty, shifting his weight but maintaining eye contact.
"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that," we both intoned sincerely. He muttered his appreciation and shuffled off to the kitchen for our drinks.
"He loves too much." She stated as though that was a scientific fact.
"No. You're just cynical. How can you love too much? Unless you mean smothering but that's not love…"
"I don't mean smothering. He just loves too much, so much. Very deeply. That scares some people."
"But he said 'my girlfriend and I broke up', which implies that it was a mutual thing."
"Well, he probably doesn't want to put the blame on either of them. I bet it was her, though."
"You always suspect fault."
"You don't read enough Cosmo."
The waiter in question returned and interrupted our bantering with napkin coasters for my Dr. Pepper and her beer.
"Say, what's your favorite movie?" I asked the boy in an effort to distract his mind from its inevitably self-deprecating thoughts.
"Hm, Office Space?"
"And you can work in a restaurant after seeing that?!" The toaster asked in a mockingly incredulous tone.
"Ha, yeah." He cocked a slight smile, glancing around to ascertain the whereabouts of his superiors. "At least we don't have to wear pieces of flare or anything." His soft chuckle was as much of a relief to us as it must have been to him.
We talked little as we ate, comfortable in our mutual silence. I glanced up and smiled at the toaster, recognizing and acknowledging that she was now my comrade instead of just a sporadically useful appliance. Maybe somewhere along the line we would end up in a bitter stalemate like the couple driving to their family function, but for now it was just good to be here with her. It was enough.
After eating our lunch, we left a twenty dollar tip for him with a grandmotherly note suggesting he buy himself something nice or have some fun with it.
Over the course of our successive ventures together, I began to feel her eyes lingering on me for a little longer. I felt her body brush a little closer to mine. In turn, I saw myself noticing her more, if only because of her subtly closing the gap between us. Each particle in that space between was a hurdle to be cleared and seemed an uncrossable distance. Yet, slowly, we initiated the deconstruction of our personal walls to let the other in. Maybe the gap could never be fully breached or the walls scaled, but, equipped with our wisdom born of observation, we had a chance to make something work.