I Know Where you Keep Your Dish Towels

A short story in the style of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest

Marine flora looks pretty much one of two ways, she thought vaguely, bobbing slowly up and down with the tide, phalangeal and cranial. It struck her as weird that a classification with thousands of sub-categories could fit neatly and succinctly into two such boxes. It reminded her how she read in a novel once that middle class families tend to keep their dish towels exactly two drawers below their silverware. It was bizarre that such a random and purposeless choice was fairly consistent across the board, and she was initially skeptical of the assertion. Upon recollection, however, she realized her own family kept dish towels three drawers below the silverware, just to the left of the stove. It was still in the same vertical cabinet faction of the kitchen, though, so she figured it was close enough.

Her family did have its own eccentricities, she reasoned, and missing out on the unspoken silverware-to-drawer-number-to-dish-towel ratio between neighbors would not be the first idiosyncrasy perceptible in her nuclear relations. She and her mom often got into tickle wars, to mention one, even though she was a respectable 21-year-old sort-of-college-junior and societal premise might dictate she should have graduated from that sort of endeavor years ago. In fact, she got along with her parents far too well to be in the first standard deviation for that kind of thing.

Suppressing her tendency of spiraling down a hypochondriacal vortex of We’re Different that is so tempting on family vacations, she bobbed and looked and bobbed and looked some more. Snorkeling came naturally to her; she’d done it every other year or so since probably age six, on other family vacations, before the Reckoning came, as it does with age, and the We’re Different premonition began to seep like sticky goo into the crevices of her psyche.

Neon yellow angelfish swerved and dashed — as much as beings without legs can reasonably dash — between the gyri of coral brains. Scuttlefish scuttled and other tropical piscine went about their daily business, presumably thinking fishy thoughts while hiding among gently waving sea fingers. She could feel the exposed part of her calves burning in the sunshine, though she tucked her hands into her armpits for warmth. The submerged 96% of her body was just cool enough to be sub-comfortable, and the unjust distribution of heat teased her sensibilities mildly, the way baby hairs that can’t quite muster themselves to reach ponytail length less-than-slightly irritate the ponytail-wearer. Those baby hairs fluttered in front of her goggles right now, perhaps more-than-slightly getting on her nerves due to the visibility implications.

Snorkeling doesn’t provide you with a lot of optical freedom, as it were. Any crack, smudge, quantity of water, grain of sand, intrusive hair, excess humidity, loose fit, tight fit, glare, or functional irregularity in the face mask can quickly escort the wearer from hero to zero, rendering them completely blind. Not to mention the obvious cruciality of the snorkel itself, the only connection between breathing human and air, short of, God forbid, actually lifting one’s face out of the water.

She considered this idly as she watched a multi-tonal parrotfish gnaw aggressively on a lobe of green coral. Munch munch her dad’s voice went in her head, exhibiting his tendency to narrate the actions of the various fauna they would see together on these vacations. Apparently, to her great dismay, she had absorbed this awkward habit, probably through osmosis in the water. Itch itch he would say if they passed a particularly flea-inflicted dog on the Indonesian streets, letting out a relieved belly oooh sigh when the dog found temporary relief and trotted off. Was this permanent? Was she doomed to narrate animals forever? Perhaps, she contemplated, Marianne Williamson should have edited her famous “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate/ Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure” two-liner to include but our most secret fear is that we will become our parents. 

A fat glob of pine-green sea kelp floated by. She shivered. Plant life that wasn’t connected to anything gave her the creeping jeepers. Things must have a source or at least a some sort of relationship to other things in order to fit into our schemas comfortably, she asserted inwardly. This is why we often find ourselves plugging in lamps we might not even use in hotel rooms, or trying to set up our single friends with coworkers who are only sorta-cute and have pen-clicking issues: we’re desperate to order the world. Loose cords, spare change, stray dogs, incomplete card decks, single people, and floating seaweed all make us ever so slightly nauseated by their aloneness. Horror movie directors know and abuse this principle regularly, decorating their films with a fine dusting of Severed Hand Here, Lost Eyeball There, not to mention crowd favorites like Pool of Blood Without Clearly Defined Source and Dirty Child With Only One Shoe.

Consciously or not, we all understand this Universal Truth and do our best to comply with it by attaching ourselves to something at all times. The something can’t just be anything, she reasoned, absentmindedly rubbing her pruny thumb over pruny pointer finger. Like, at a party, it is okay to attach yourself firmly to a bowl of chips and let that be your thing, but it wouldn’t as kosher to be the doorknob guy or elbow examiner. Cellphone-starer: OK, group-chatter: OK, dog-petter: OK, carpet-feeler: NOT OK.

Ignoring the insidiously solitary kelp, she turned her attention back to the actually rather gorgeous scene below her. She dove down, popping her ears with the pressure change and examined the underside of a large coral formation. Several pairs of eyes stared back at her in that ogle-eyed fishy way. Having spent several days with the underwater social scene in Komodo National Park, she made another marine assertion. Fish, like people, present themselves in three ways: menacing, ridiculous, or dumb and placid as the kid in elementary school who eats glue at craft time.

Kicking back to the surface, she clamped down on the snorkel mouthpiece, which functioned more like a bit. This one was hard plastic, not as malleable as preferable, and firmly separated her tongue from both roof and floor of mouth. One rule of tongue is that it really must be touching at least one of the two surfaces at all times, and the lack of contact made her exquisitely uncomfortable. It hung limply, suspended in her oral airspace like a kite caught and dangling from a tree. Thinking about one’s tongue is about as annoying as thinking about blinking or when the doctor says breathe normally and you suddenly can’t for the life of you breathe fucking normally. As such, she put this out of her mind and returned to the polychromatic itchthyoid specimen still nibbling on what looked like a delicious chunk of amydalian tissue. Munch munch.

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