If There Is No What

Ruth Blank

I’m still jet lagged. Meggie has gone down to the hotel restaurant for breakfast. I order room service. The eggs are covered with too much butter, and the thin bread was probably toasted early this morning, but everything tastes really good. And now the room smells like bacon.

I would have had an appointment with you today if I were at home. You would sit there and look at me, professionally easy going, not shocked by anything I say and not demanding that I speak. What you do sometimes is make me so uncomfortable by your silence and by your staring at me that I blurt something out and even if it's something stupid, you’ll follow my thought wherever it goes.

“I couldn’t get a seat on the trolley today,” I’ll say, and you’ll say, “mhmm. Frustrating?” And then we'll talk about trolleys and trains and road rage for a half hour, and then we’re done and I leave wondering what just happened.

Today, I’d talk to you about Meggie, which I know you’d like, even though you’d never say you wanted me to talk about her, but I can tell because you shift in your seat when I mention her and you ask me questions: How do you feel when she goes out with friends? What annoys you? When did you start feeling annoyed? What do you think of her friends?

Yes, I might talk to you about Meggie today if I were in your office. I don’t know what I would tell you, how much. I might wait to see what you asked me. There have been a few times when you’ve asked me questions and I’ve felt a wave come over me, from head to toe and back again, like full-body dizziness and I find that I’m saying something that I’ve never said out loud before. Like the time I talked about when Dad stood over me when I was six and he blocked out the sun and the trees and his spit hit my face and his hand was raised above his head and it was almost worse that it didn’t come down on me because then he could have stopped being so angry but he never has.

I think you know more about me than you’re letting on.

This hotel smells of bacon and years of strangers occupying its rooms, but the bed is comfortable. I’m going back to sleep.

*  *  *
I walked to Hyde Park today. The bellman pointed me in the direction and it was just a straight shot down Piccadilly right to Speaker’s Corner, where the crazy people line up to fill tourists' heads with their wacky ideas. It was raining and cold, so not that many people were standing around, but that didn’t stop this youngish-looking guy from going on and on in a thick British accent. His raincoat was buttoned up so tight that it looked like it was choking him, and his plaid wool cap was dripping water onto his face.

When I walked up, he was saying, “if there is no what, then what is what?” Then he paused to let his small audience absorb the meaning of his words. I looked around and there were a few people—some Scandinavian-looking people and some Middle Eastern-looking people—but they all seemed to be waiting for another speaker.

As far as I was concerned, “what is what?” was a good question and I wanted to hear the answer even though the speaker already said that maybe there was no what. And he went on to say that if you can’t answer the question of what “what” is, then you can’t prove there is "what” and therefore we have a dilemma. He called it a die-lemma and it was hard to tell if that was his accent or that was part of his meaning.

The guy had dark droopy skin under his eyes, as though he hadn’t slept in a long time, as though this problem had been keeping him up at night and he was finally ready to share his die-lemma with the world, to expose the “what” problem. There was a young couple under an oversized umbrella, both wearing lime green Keds with no laces. I heard the girl snicker and I wondered what made her think she was so much better than the speaker. Then, it occurred to me that she might be snickering at me with my hair plastered down by the rain and my old white Adidas. She probably thought I was the next nut in line.

I was pretty wet so I went back to the hotel. Meggie was reading a book in the room. I kind of wanted to ask her: “If there is no what, then what is what?” to see if she could make sense of it, but, of course, I didn’t.

When I came in, she looked at me, got up, picked up her raincoat that was on a chair and walked out. Now I’m here with nothing to do. I could go back to Speaker’s Corner, I could go to the British Museum or the Tate. I could walk around in the rain. I call up to my parents’ room. They’re not there. At times like this, I wish I could read. It’s not that I was ever a great reader. I was slow. We had to read Moby Dick over the summer between eighth and ninth grade and it took me all summer to look at the words, but I didn’t make sense of it. I hated that book. They thought I might be dyslexic, but I failed the dyslexia tests. Then, it was a few months ago that I just stopped recognizing words. It didn’t really shock me to pick up my copy of Free Fall that I was reading for English and not understand what I was seeing. I looked at the page and saw lines and curves, nothing that meant anything. After all the CT scans and MRIs and spinal fluid tests, they sent me to you. All we do is talk. Talk talk talk and I still can’t make out a letter. I can say the alphabet, of course, I just can’t read it. What is what? Can you tell me?

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