Fiction - Summer 2013

Commencement

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The campus of the future is a strange, unsettling place

Photo by Fomukimai

By Ralph Lombreglia

June 7, 2013


 

 

It was happening all the time now when Bob appeared at institutions of higher learning: last-minute negotiations were required before he could take the stage. Tonight, the administration of San Jose College of the Mind would ask him not to talk about certain things that might inflame the students. Unlike most motivational speakers in the college market, Bob had begun actually motivating his audiences—to have uprisings, so-called, although as far as he could tell they were more like love-ins and smoke-fests in his honor. At most gigs, he was now being ambushed before the show with content guidance and contract riders saying that if he ignored the guidance, which was his legal right, and then something bad happened, he had better be carrying some pretty fucking great insurance.

A shy, beautiful girl from the dean’s office brought him the news in the greenroom, where he was relaxing with a drink. She wore a daffodil-yellow frock and bluish-black sandals that turned out to be tattoos, and her name was Simile. She had her skateboard with her, and she was nervous, darting her bashful eyes and twisting the chestnut hair on the half of her head that hadn’t been shaved.

It irritated Bob that the overlords had sent this gentle child of English majors to muzzle a visiting celebrity. “Don’t feel bad, Simile,” he said. “They all do this. I expected it. Thank you for coming to tell me.”

“No problem,” she replied.

“You’re sure?”

“About what?”

“That there’s no problem.”

She stood staring at him as if she’d been unplugged. Before Simile’s time, the idea was that you “were welcome” to whatever kindness someone had done for you. Now the idea was that all interactions between human beings were inherently problematic, but in this case no “problem” had arisen, and so “thank you” was irrelevant and you should have saved your breath.

“You’ve never seen my bits on people saying, ‘No problem’?”

“Oh yeah, they’re really funny.”

He had to hand it to the educators. They were getting amazingly consistent results. The brilliant stroke had been taking reading off the curriculum and replacing it with code. All the other goodness flowed from that. In his act, he railed at his fans for being complete and total dumbfucks about everything except software, weed, music, and sex, in that order, and he always got a huge laugh with that.

Simile had no documents in her hands, just the skateboard. “The dean has to put his concerns in writing,” Bob said.

“The dean’s a she. She wants to discuss it in person.”

He sipped his drink. It was not precise to say that half of Simile’s head was shaved. Only the lower right side was bare, starting about where a prep school boy, such as Bob had once been, might part his hair. The bright line between glossy tresses and naked scalp was a startling sight, a glimpse of the Reaper’s blade that Bob would have had trouble not staring at even if Simile hadn’t had a yin-yang symbol tattooed there above her ear.


The greenroom was also the living room of Bob’s hotel suite. The stage entrance was just down the hall from his door. A publicity binder on the coffee table explained that College of the Mind had partnered with major financial and hospitality institutions to create the campus of the future, where living spaces, learning spaces, and spaces for leveraging capital all dovetailed together in a free-market continuum.

Bob believed in bringing the fight to the foe, but this was like French-kissing the foe. Still, he liked the accommodations. He would step from his living room into the arms of thousands—literally into their arms if his fans had their way. They often wanted to carry him on their shoulders after he got finished ridiculing them and the world they lived in. Carla would never allow it. She had the same walkie-talkie the security guards used, and she would find out what channel they were on and start ordering them around. Nobody got anywhere near Bob.

“The dean’s a huge fan of yours,” Simile said. She was sitting on the sofa opposite his, moving her skateboard around on the floor with her decorated feet. It had aliens painted on it.

Bob had a headache. He massaged his forehead and laugh-snorted softly. “You are such a trusting soul, Simile, such a true believer. In itself, a beautiful thing. But they always say this. They’re always my biggest fans. And then they slap the restraints on me.” He rattled the ice in his empty glass. “You have a beautiful name, by the way.”

“Thank you,” she said.

“No problem,” said Bob, to which Simile only smiled sweetly. He added, “Naming a baby is the only real magic most people ever perform. Aside from the really big magic of making the baby in the first place.”

She stopped wiggling her skateboard.

“I’m saying your parents did a good thing when they named you Simile.”

“They didn’t. They named me Roberta. I named myself Simile.”

“Ah, interesting. Roberta was your slave name. Simile is your free name.”

“I never thought of that.”

“Hey, question for you. Why do they always wait till the very last minute to tell me the forbidden topics?”

“To make sure they’re up with current events?”

“I think it’s to mess with my mojo. Keep me off-balance. Keep me guessing.”

“Our dean isn’t sneaky like that. She’s really nice.”

And is this dean of yours also really nice-looking, Simile? Bob wondered, and he knew it reflected badly on him and made him seem shallow, or it would if suddenly everyone were able to read his mind, which, mercifully, wasn’t possible quite yet. He was not a shallow person. He was a deep and principled man. But he was a man nonetheless, and on a 10-week road trip with an estranged girlfriend who continued to be his tour manager.

He wondered if Carla planned to show herself this evening. He hadn’t seen her since they arrived, hours ago.

“This going-to-talk-to-the-dean thing is dicey, Simile. It could look bad if it ever got out. You know, ‘Bob’s just a monkey on a string’ kind of thing.”

“I would never tell anyone,” she said.

He turned over another glass and filled it with ice from the bucket. “Good. Let’s drink a toast to that.”

“The drinking age is 21, and I’m only 20.”

He was momentarily taken aback by such compliance from a person so copiously inked and pierced. But of course the tats and the studs were compliance, too. The campus of the future was a sinister place that didn’t look like a sinister place. And they called Bob dangerous!

“Here, I’m pouring you a little one. You’re obviously a grown woman.”

“She’s obviously nothing of the kind.” It was Carla, coming in behind him through the door that connected her suite to his, a door she kept locked. “This is what we call a girl, Bob. Sorry, honey. He has trouble telling the difference.”

Bob introduced the ladies. Carla smiled wickedly when she heard Simile’s name. She was dressed in a pink tank top and black harem pants that seemed to flow up through her body to become the roots of her white buzzcut.

“Are you here with the contract rider, Miss Metaphor?”

“We were just talking about that,” said Bob. He gave his young emissary a wink. “Simile reports that the dean—a very cool, hip young guy, by the way, huge fan of mine—had the idea that I might come over and hear the Ten Commandments in person.”

“No, I’m afraid not, Similicious. We don’t take meetings with college deans. It’s bad enough that we voluntarily violate Bob’s civil rights by attaching your riders to our contracts to begin with.”

Bob put on his suit jacket. “Carla, Simile is a student here at the college, not one of the college’s attorneys. Sorry, Simile, she has trouble telling the difference. I told Simile about our policy, and she asked me to make an exception. And in this case, I feel it’s justified.”

“And you’re planning to stroll across campus with a drink in your hand, like Dean Martin.”

“Your dean’s name isn’t Dean Martin, is it?” said Bob.

“No, Dean White.”

Carla took his glass away. “Simile, because most of Bob’s brain is taken up by insights into the human condition, he’s not real good at telling time. Please have him back here in one hour. Or less. With the contract rider.”

Bob wiggled his fingers at Carla to say goodbye. She made a downward-pointing gesture at Bob’s crotch that meant, Do it and see what happens.


Bob’s whole act was just little stuff, little realizations anybody could have—You’re building your own prison, shitheads!—and he didn’t claim otherwise. You think I’m a genius? he asked his fans when he wasn’t upbraiding them for being such pathetic conformist sheep. An idiot could see this stuff. They laughed.

If Bob hadn’t been born funny, he’d be in a facility somewhere.

He was, or he had been, a software engineer, though you could hardly call code writing “engineering” by the time Bob staggered into the profession. Or even a profession, really. It was more like investors putting suppositories up corporations and software coming out, and whatever blast of corporate code hit the citizens first was what you got for a civilization. Thus you ended up with things like The Pigbook, which Bob had first seen years ago when he went to college. It was printed on paper back then, with photos of all the entering freshmen so you could get to know your classmates and decide which ones you wanted to fuck. The electronic Trojan-horse version of The Pigbook had now swapped itself for half the Network and was going for the rest. Which completely sucked. And so of course Bob’s fans loved it.

He wasn’t the first geek to point his phone at himself, mock the dirtbags who ran the world, and put it up on the Net. But apparently he was the first to focus on the essential dirtbaggery of geekdom itself. The popularity of this message was a mystery, but Bob had a theory: deep down, his fans knew their world was crap. That was why they resonated so well with Bob’s signature theme: I love something, and the thing I love sucks. He had borrowed the theme from William Butler Yeats. Naturally, Yeats had phrased it differently.

Carla had her own theory, and they fought about it as they fought about everything. Her theory went: yes, the young clamored for Bob, but their elders paid his fees. The reason? Simple. Let the kids blow off some steam with Bob’s potty mouth and revolutionary posturing, and then let them get back to those cubicles. It was what she had seen when she first stumbled upon Bob’s videos on the Net, and why she had come to find him and love him and get him hooked on the heroin of doing it live, on stage and in person.

And becoming a hero to people half his age. Yes, Bob was an old guy. His year-count began with a four. He’d survived the terrifying decade beyond his 20s, and he still looked halfway decent. He’d held the big corporate jobs, and he wasn’t dead, or at least not literally. He was a source of hope to the kids coming up. He stepped into the footlights like a game-show host and told his fans that the world was fucked far worse than they suspected it was fucked. He went on rants they might have gone on themselves, had they not been completely stupefied by bullshit. He was middle-aged and enraged so they didn’t have to be—which, if you thought about it, was a lot like being a savior.


A limousine was waiting outside to take Bob to the dean, but he insisted upon walking. Simile skated beside him. He wanted to get a feel for the school, maybe hang with some fans, see where he stood vis-à-vis inciting a riot tonight. But except for a maintenance crew here and there, College of the Mind was deserted.

“Where is everybody?” Bob asked.

Simile glided past him on the silken sidewalk, then spun and came gliding back. “Getting ready for tonight, probably.”

“They have to get ready? Mentally or physically?”

“I guess both.”

Incessant, metronomic pounding was audible everywhere on campus, as if San Jose College of the Mind were striking the tempo of planet Earth, or even the universe. At first, Bob had taken it for the bass drum of the school’s marching band, but the school didn’t have a band, or any other form of music education, Simile informed him. The sound was a pile driver on the biggest college complex of all, off in the distance.

More buildings? thought Bob. But why? The grounds were already encrusted with mirror-faced towers and cubes that didn’t even look occupied. He saw his reflection wherever he looked, and he disliked seeing it even though it was a nice reflection: a tall, handsome man in a two-button sharkskin suit and creamy shirt open at the collar, the eternal choices of the tasteful playboy, with a fetching co-ed circling him like Tinkerbell.

He asked Simile about her course of study. It was graphic design for video games. The aliens on her board were her own creations. She was pretty good. They were scary aliens.

“What’s this ‘free-market continuum’ racket they’ve got going here? I read about it in the hotel brochure.”

Simile hopped her board onto a curbstone, flinging sparks. “Companies want things, and we want things.”

“Yeah? What do we want?”

“To go to college.”

“Oh, right. And?”

“And so they pay for our courses, and our homework belongs to them.”

“What a league of gentlemen, those risk-
taking entrepreneurs. But after graduation you’re free, right?”

“Well, no. Early-stage investors have a stake in us.”

“For how long?”

“Forever, I guess.”

“No, Simile. That’s indentured servitude.”

They entered College of the Mind’s administrative precinct, where a few clusters of students were wandering around on petro-turf so green Bob could taste it. He had a touch of synesthesia and sometimes tasted music, too, or heard certain frequencies of light. The students realized it was him and came vectoring over, the guys looking about 14 while the girls looked exactly the right age for Bob—younger than Bob, of course, but young adults, unlike the tykes whose hands they were holding. They all had their mobiles out so they could take Bob’s picture and oink this adventure to their peeps on The Pig.

“Get off the fucking Pigbook!” Bob said. “How many times do I have to tell you? They own your brains!”

“Bob! We can’t get off it! It’s where everybody is!”

“Build your own place where everybody is!”

He meant it literally, but they thought he was speaking in parables. They wanted him to smoke a mind-expanding cigar with them. Well, of course he knew that was coming. Another source of Bob’s popularity was that he encouraged orgiastic behavior of all types. He ran the magical item under his nose and almost took a bite, it smelled so much like candy. The dark brown paper was mint-chocolate flavored, with an oval logo embossed in it. He held it up in the sun, trying to make it out.

“It’s the college seal,” the students said.

“They sell these in the campus store?”

“No, they’re handing them out for free in your honor!”

“Wow. I don’t know what to say. I’m touched. But, guys, if I did this with everyone who asked, I’d be an acorn squash by now. So I have this bummer of a policy: I don’t do it with anyone.”

They were already remarkably wrecked anyway. They settled for having him sign their bodies with permanent marker. Then they hugged him and wobbled away, and Bob and Simile continued their journey to the dean.

“Is your manager your girlfriend?” Simile wanted to know.

“No. What makes you ask?”

“You guys are kind of intense. What’s the deal with that?”

It was an innocent question, but it caused Bob to search his mind for an answer that wasn’t there, the mental equivalent of an infinite loop. It triggered one of the spells he had sometimes, where he left his body and got … not glimpses of the future, but more like smells of the future, whiffs of the beast’s body as it advanced. Today, for some reason, the beast smelled like marzipan. The scent of sweet almond paste flooded Bob’s mind. He felt certain that dogs smelled the future this way all the time, except dogs understood what they were smelling, and Bob didn’t.

What was the deal with Carla now? What, what, what? His recent travels with her had beaten him up so badly, he had no idea anymore. He used to be crazy about her, and maybe he still was, but she also drove him insane. She was exciting and bossy in equal measures, the two things Bob needed in a woman, but not, it turned out, in the same woman. Her haughtiness could make him ballistic, and then the fights were frightening, sometimes involving hotel management. Of course, to hear Carla tell it, Bob was ungrateful, delusional, and stuck on himself, which was nonsense.

It was Bob’s Theme again, as with computers and everything else: he loved something, and the thing he loved sucked. Except Carla was a person, not a thing, which made a surprisingly big difference. And the parts of her that didn’t suck could be really great. Bob had finally mashed his ego down to the point where he could tell Carla that she didn’t completely suck, and that in fact he wanted to marry her, when she broke the whole thing off. She’d always insisted upon having her own room on the road, even when she didn’t use it, as during their enchanted first trip together. But now she used it. They no longer even took their meals together, Bob and Carla, out on their lucrative world tour of hell.

From above, Bob watched himself tell all this to Simile. Then he came back down.

“So she doesn’t know?”

“What?”

“That you love her and want to marry her?”

“She broke up with me. I stopped speaking to her.”

“What was that stuff she was saying about me being a girl?”

What it was was that in the depths of his exasperation with Carla’s shitty personality, Bob had taken comfort in the laps of a few of his fans. Just a few.

“Oh,” said Simile. She kicked off and zipped away from him, a mermaid on her porpoise. She swung to a stop before a building that resembled a gigantic lump of green sea glass. When Bob reached her, an aperture appeared in the frosted façade and they went inside.


The corridors of power at San Jose College of the Mind had gold-veined marble on the floors and purplish granite on the walls, and everything else was sea glass lit from within and finished to look like a green gumdrop after you’ve bitten into it. Bob and Simile escalated in silence through a spearmint-flavored atrium to the mezzanine. They arrived at Dean White’s glowing gumdrop door, her name etched upon it in holograms.

The door slid away, and the dean smiled and said, “Well done, Simile,” but she said it from 20 years before, a time when Bob was insanely in love with a woman (no, Carla was right, a girl) he lived with for a year after college, the two of them holding stupid jobs and talking about getting married and everything, until one day she dropped him for a guy she’d been screwing behind his back. It was the most brain trauma Bob could sustain without actually being struck in the head. For years he was sure he was over it, and then he’d catch himself thinking about her beneath all his other thoughts, like a computer process always running in the background.

She was standing in her office, waiting for him. He would have predicted instant self-vaporization, but in fact he remained calm and unfazed. His main thought was, Wow, she’s not young and beautiful anymore.

Simile punched him in the back and left, and then Bob was alone with Dean White, whose name was Jen. Her door slid shut.

“ ‘Well done, Simile?’ ” Bob said.

“Yes, I thought she’d be able to lure you over here. Lovely, isn’t she? Even as marked up as she is. Why do they do that to themselves?”

“Because their whole world is one big lie.”

“Oh, right. I don’t suppose you want a hug.”

“No, thanks. You know, I did hear that you married a guy named White, but then I forgot all about it. Or maybe I didn’t forget. I had a premonition on the way over here.”

“Never ignore premonitions, Bobby. They’re the spirit world trying to reach us.”

“Is that what we used to say?”

“Something like that.”

“This gig was your idea?”

“Not at all. You were the students’ overwhelming choice. Funny how life works, isn’t it?”

“Hilarious.” She had no rings on her fingers. “You’re not married anymore?”

“My husband passed away.”

“I’m sorry. What happened?”

“We had a fight, and he lost control of his car.”

“And you weren’t hurt?”

“I wasn’t there. It was a fight in our home. We said horrible things to each other, and then Ken left for the track, upset and distracted. I shouldn’t have let him go. He was president of this place, you know.”

“You just said he was a racecar driver.”

“No, Bobby. Racecars were his hobby. Ken was a visionary of human destiny. This campus is his dream.” She glanced at herself in a mirror across the room. “Unfortunately, I’m having some problems here, old pal. I’m not hitting my fundraising numbers, and I’m not particularly well liked.”

“Fundraising? You’re the dean of students.”

“What do you think a dean of students does?”

“ ‘The campus of the future,’ said Bob, ‘where learning spaces and spaces for leveraging capital—’ ”

“Go ahead, rub it in. Maybe I deserve it. But not because I betrayed you. I didn’t. I want you to believe that.”

“Banging a cowboy and then running off to live with him in Arkansas isn’t betrayal?”

“Absolutely not. It had nothing to do with you.”

“Thanks for clearing that up.”

“No problem. As I was saying, especially now with Ken gone, I have some challenges to my position here.”

“Maybe the market will sort it out,” Bob said. He walked over to Jen’s window wall. Down on the quad, some students were smoking antiwar cigarettes and making petro-turf angels. “They have these big chocolate reefers with the college seal on them.”

“Yes, I spent a large chunk of their activities budget on those.”

“What is it?”

“Just a nice blend of natural ingredients to promote thoughtfulness and fellow feeling.” She smiled at Bob. “There will be no riots at San Jose College of the Mind tonight, Bobby. I’m way too fragile for riots.”

The pile driver was throbbing like an abscess in the mouth of the world. “What in fuck’s name are they doing with that?”

“They’re building the culmination of this campus, the thing Ken didn’t live to see. Pigbook world headquarters.”

Bob’s body tried to laugh, but it came out as dry heaves. He flashed on the remarkable connection he used to have with this woman, the great love of his youth, now the widow of Satan. “I get it, Jen. San Jose Tax Haven of the Mind.”

“You never heard me say that. This is an accredited institution. We give bona fide degrees.”

His phone started ringing in his pocket. It was Carla.

“Time to kiss the dean goodbye, Bob.”

“That won’t be necessary, actually.”

“I hear she’s pretty hot.”

“Who told you that?”

“Simile. She came back to see me. We’re having a fascinating conversation. You said the dean was a guy.”

“I was misinformed. You called to discuss gender issues?”

He knew he had her with that one, even though in her place he would have been a bird dog on the dean’s gender.

“Simile says you’ve been meaning to tell me something.”

“Yes, I suppose so.”

“When were you planning to get around to it?”

“We’ll discuss it the next time I see you.”

“Get your ass back here.”

He hung up. “I haven’t seen my content guidance.”

“You’re getting it verbally. No brands, no corporations.”

There went half of Bob’s act. “You can’t do that.”

“Yes I can. The trustees are like the students. They get direct, literal references. If you don’t actually say the name of something, they don’t realize you’re talking about it.”

“Or they can deny it.”

“Whatever. Who cares. Tell the kids they’re farm animals who deserve the real tattoos they’re going to get. Tell them they’re coding the apocalypse. Say the government’s a mound of maggots. Say the rich are building a space colony for themselves after they turn Earth into a dog turd. Say you’ve seen hipper-looking headware on the Seven Dwarves. Anything you want. Just no brands or corporations.”

At least she had checked out his act. “I’m curious about something. Why haven’t you ditched this fucking place? Surely Ken left you enough.”

“The estate’s frozen. His other wives will have it in court till I’m dead.”

“His ex-wives, you mean.”

“No.”

“Ken was Muslim? Mormon?”

“Just a polygamist on his own say-so.”

He turned to look at her one last time from the door. “Did we ever eat marzipan together?”

“We met in a marzipan shop. You don’t remember that?”

“Of course I do. I was checking to see if you
did.”

“Why? To verify that I’m not an android?”

“Yes, now that you mention it.”


A pile driver shouldn’t be a hard thing to find, but Bob got totally turned around in Ken the Visionary’s labyrinth of mirror-boxes where echoes ricochet like madness. The pounding was coming from everywhere, and he couldn’t ask for directions because the campus was dead. Streetlamps standing in the shadows of buildings were already on. Dusk was approaching. He went around in circles for 20 minutes before he reached the future site of Pigbook HQ, which turned out to be an insult to the planet’s surface the size of a meteor crater.

Well, thought Bob, world domination does demand a big hole.

His composure in Jen’s office had been a temporary warrior state. It was all hitting him now. He was trembling. But he felt huge. The Pigbook crater was somehow inside him. When he pulled open a chain-link gate and stepped into it, he was stepping into himself. Halfway down the slope, he sat on a rock to watch some pile driver pornography. The monumental thrusting entered his crotch and bloomed in his brain. His headache vanished, obliterated by it.

Carla was right. He was just a party drug. He would never change anything.

He braced himself for the plunge into despair. He’d been sundowning again lately, slipping into space-void aloneness as evening approached. It was a lifelong tendency that got markedly worse when things went bad with Carla, and they’d had no choice but to continue voyaging together like angry astronauts. But here at sunset today, he didn’t go to the dark place.

He thought: something went terribly wrong in the development of animated matter on this planet. Everything was good until Homo sapiens, at which point a fatal bug somehow crept into the code, a crease in the patterning such that the dominant form of life on Earth was a glitched organism that did unspeakable things not only to its fellows but to every other organism, too.

The intelligent animals. Bob had to laugh. They had one saving grace, however. They were programmable. Their hardware was permanently bent, but they could still receive instructions. You could fix them in software. Or at least you could try.

Carla was partly right: his power with his fans worked only along certain axes, in certain dimensions. If he directly commanded them to stop writing code for the empire, they would not obey. He had tried that. They thought he was joking. If he told them to smash their mobiles, they would giggle at how crazy Bob was. But if he said he wanted to run for e-president, and he needed them to tribe-source him a peer-to-peer voting system, democracy in action on the Net, they would have it up and running in two days because it would just be such a cool thing to do. A people’s electoral bucket brigade.

And then, of course, they would turn out in great numbers for the election, like 100 percent, and they would all vote for Bob, and they would expect their votes to count. And if their votes didn’t count, well maybe then they would stop writing code for the empire. Maybe they’d crap up some of the code they’d already written, too.

He stood to climb back up the excavation. Carla was plowing down it with her walkie-talkie strapped to her hip. As if pulled by her radio energy, three campus security guards came flying over the lip of the crater behind her.

After they got him in the van, she said, “Life is a real fucking roller coaster with you, Bob.”

“That’s exactly what I was going to say about you.”

Then he popped the question.

“How would I like to be first lady?” said Carla. “Well, let me ask you something, Bob. Were you aware that you’re the commencement speaker at this spook house?”

“No, how did that happen?”

“They didn’t bother telling us that they hold commencement at night in October specifically to save money on speaker fees. I would have charged four times this much for commencement. We got seriously stiffed here.”

“It’s the business logic of a guy named Ken.”

“What was in the rider?”

“Nothing. She didn’t have one. She’s insane. This whole place is.”

Carla kissed him passionately. They were like the lock-and-key enzyme theory, Bob and Carla, not the most beautiful thing to witness up close, but the chemistry was undeniable.

He told her what he’d decided.

“Fuck,” she said. “They’ll do this, you realize.”

“I think that’s what I just said.”

“Who are you running against?”

“No one. It’s not a personality contest, is it?”

“Not when you do it.”

“If someone on the Net doesn’t want to vote for Bob, they can just not vote. That will count as a vote against Bob.”

And plenty of his countrymen would do just that. And still it would be a landslide.

The van arrived at the Kenneth X. White Luxury Partnership Suites and Investor Agora. Bob hadn’t bothered to look at the building’s inscription before. The guards brought him in the back way. He heard the hive-thrum of the crowd assembling in Ken the Visionary’s gathering place. He wondered if they wore caps and gowns here at College of the Mind. If so, they probably had a robe for Bob. He was covered with mud, but he traveled with three identical suits, boxes of creamy shirts, multiple pairs of black socks and Italian loafers. It was unbelievably liberating never to make a dressing decision. But he did like the idea of a flowing robe.

He was late for a very important date. He nearly killed himself shimmying to the bathroom with his underpants around his ankles, his stiffening sharkskin on the floor behind him like a murder victim. He turned fully nude to Carla and said, “It is of the utmost importance that we stop doing what we’ve been doing.” By “we” he had meant humanity, but Carla thought he meant the two of them and the way they’d been fighting, and she embraced him and hauled him into the bathroom. The hotel showerhead resembled a silver sunflower bent over by its own magnificence. Bob stepped into its downpour, every droplet hitting him like a seed.


Ralph Lombreglia is the author of two short-story collections, Men Under Water and Make Me Work. His stories have appeared in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and the Scholar, among other magazines.


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