Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Choice of Ants

Caitlin Murphy
I’m sitting, my arms wrapped around my legs, staring at ants crawling to and fro on the pavement. This was once a pastime of mine, when I was a child. When you are a certain indeterminate age, you can do things like spend hours a day watching ants. Eventually there are groundings and girls and grades and abortions and jobs and you pretty much forget altogether about the world that the ants live in. That is, until a moment like now.

If they've missed me over the years, they show no sign of it. Dutiful. Dedicated. Did you know that sometimes they will build a bridge out of their very bodies, drown themselves, just so that others can cross a stream?

Don’t judge. It isn’t the ants themselves that fascinated me, even as a child. It is the scale that they live in, and the truly magical way that they self-organize. I know it isn’t really magic, but we have no other word for it. Magic is what we call things that we don’t understand. (We don’t really understand anything, when you get right down to it, so the truth is that the entire universe is magical. But that’s something else entirely.)

I can hear sirens in the background. The cops, dutifully, are arriving in a rush, and there will be questions and I’m sure at some point I’ll have to deal with the emotional weight of what just happened. But for right now, there’s just me and the ants—the not-so-benevolent God and His useless subjects. Sometimes I would squash one of them and watch it wriggle. It wasn’t viciousness. I didn’t revel in their suffering. It was just some primal urge. Every now and then when you see a long line of ants marching you just have to reach in and pick one. YOU, you say. And their body, half crushed by the mass of your finger, struggles against the inevitable fact that, for no reason at all, a choice was made, or it wasn’t, but either way, there is no turning back.

That’s really what I’m getting at, I think, through all the shock. One moment everything is a certain way and the next it is completely different, and for no other reason than that you were picked out of a line because that’s just how it is, how it will be, forever and ever, Amen.

My wife Sheila—she would have legally been my wife in three months but we had lived together for years—was broken just like one of those ants, a carcass tangled in the metal that used to be our new car. No more marriage planning, no more—well, none of it matters really. I reached down and pushed down, hard, on one of those ants. I picked his abdomen. It popped and spurted whatever ant abdomens contain onto the sidewalk, and he tried to drag the flaccid thing around for a while. Eventually other ants showed up to the scene and carried it off. I wondered if they were the cops and emergency personnel of the ant world, or if they just switched roles.

The cops wanted to know a lot of details that seemed pointless. What was the make of the third car that hit us? Where were we headed? I looked at him dully and said, “Her favorite flavor was mint chocolate chip.” I couldn't think of anything else. Anyway, there were pieces of the car that hit us from behind scattered across the roadway. Did I look like a mechanic? It was a pileup. I remember the bus. The rest happened too fast.

I thought back a moment. How many breaths separated me, now, breathing alone with the ants, and my wife and I in the car, breathing the same air together? A few hundred breaths? An endless chasm.


I was in the car with her. She was pouting in that way she did when she was half toying with me and half serious, and of course she knew that if she did that long enough she would get almost anything she wanted. She wanted to get ice cream. It was no good for her stomach and my stomach certainly didn’t need the extra padding, but she wanted ice cream. How could I argue with that?

So I caved.

“It’s my period,” she said, as if that explained anything. She had her period at least six or seven times a month. She made a left hand turn. I smiled at her. So what if the crazy romance part was gone? I’d drown myself in the river to give her safe passage. That was love. Not mad or crazy, just that point when two organisms really become one.

Another right. And then the driver side of our car became a part of the engine block of a school bus.
It was like my train of thought refused to stop for a minute, to accept the reality of what happened. It continued—I could never say no to her. It’s why we were married, why we had pink curtains in our house. It was why our car was totaled.

I could hear the children screaming after the impact, before I realized that the entire inside of my wife’s body had been turned to jello. Her outsides were in the right place, but then all the liquids inside her just started leaking out.

Then, and I hate to admit it, but then my next thought was—I hope to God some of those kids died. Horribly, tragically, unbelievably painful deaths. I wanted to grab them and rip their jaws from their skulls, mid-scream, tongue and blood and palate flopping and splattering everywhere, every single fucking child smeared across the asphalt like jam on toast. I wanted a hundred mothers wailing over their broken bodies. They had taken my wife from me, split me in half like a chicken breast on the block. I know it was irrational. And I had nothing against children. But suddenly I was alone in a way that no one else could possibly understand, and it was all because we had decided to get ice cream.

A few weeks later, I’d been through I don’t know how many therapy sessions. It was like being interrogated by the bureaucracy of an alien planet. I don’t know how else to explain it. None of their questions made any sense. Did I have hope for the future? On a scale of 1 to 5 rate your feelings about today. I had no idea how to answer these questions, so I just made things up. All I know is that I am never, ever getting ice cream again. The rest seemed so obvious and pointless.

“You are depressed because of the death of your wife.”

Gee. Does that take a PhD?

But there was a real problem. I was terrified to make decisions. Little ones. The seemingly inconsequential choices we make throughout the day: vanilla latte or mocha? Left or right hand turn? Paper or plastic? Do you say hello or keep on walking? These aren't problems for most people. Most people fret and toil over the "big" questions. What am I doing with my life? What is my five year plan? Is my career on track? We are all trained from an early age to hunt The Prize, the career path, the blood diamond ring (better put a ring on it!), the right Man—fuck it all though. True, that line of thought might be valid, but it’s still all bullshit. You can’t rationalize true loss. You can’t replace it. Nothing ever will. Either it gets better little by little, and you get a new life, or it doesn’t and nothing—sure as fuck no rationalization—can fix it.

Deciding what to invest yourself in, and what to let slip by, is a very tricky thing. All the chance occurrences are often the most significant. If you think about this, you too might become completely paralyzed. Even before the accident, sometimes I would feel it, like ice crackling its way through my legs, arms, eventually even my head, that pins-and-needles sensation of a “sleeping” limb that just won't listen any longer. I can't think, I can't choose. The only way to break out is to just choose something, anything at random. These decisions define us, and they are in the end defined not by free choice but by identity: our choices become us, and so, at the same time, they are as static or fluid as our Self is...

Never forget: The number of moments we have is fixed.

You get to live the illusion of big dreams and big plans until that giant finger slams down on your abdomen, pop! Your dreams were a distraction. It’s all the little choices that determine everything that matters, and each one of us can never, ever, not in a million years—not if you pray and cry and plead and cut yourself with a razor in penance—never be able to make that little decision again. There are no do-overs.

And never in all the women I can meet in my life will I meet one just like her. It’s plain unfair to love someone because they remind you of someone who's dead.

Maybe that is my fault. Some men seem attracted to women that seem cut out of a mold, women that can be described by the color of their hair, the tone of their laugh and what TV shows they like. Go out and get a new one. Your life isn’t over because your red corvette got demolished.

Her death was a hole inside me that I carried with me every day.

I started to cry. I’d been saying all these things to my therapist and finally a nerve was struck, like a chord on a piano that someone had carted into the center of an empty auditorium. That was the first time I’d cried since the accident. My therapist told me that it was an improvement. It changed nothing. The chord vibrated in empty air and died off. The auditorium, empty. The air remained. I remained. So did that hole, the little grave I carried in my pocket. My life sustained her absence, the memories of two people kept alive by a single beating heart.

A little crying led to a lot more, but I was still paralyzed. I had to be driven to and from therapy and kept myself shut up in my apartment. For a few months friends would stop by and awkwardly ask how things were (it was pretty obvious how things were), but eventually they stopped. Which was for the better, because their mere presence added to the uncertainty of the situation. It was the tiniest of decisions I was most concerned about. If it would have been possible to work a job or fly to the moon through some grand gesture and not a thousand tiny choices, I’m sure I would have been ready for the task. But I simply couldn't do it. I insisted that food delivery be left outside, and caught myself worrying about the trek up and down the stairs. I can’t even say what I was really worried about, since I’m sure a part of me wanted to die more than anything else in the world.

One thing did change: I decided to start farming ants. At first it was just one of those little ant farms you get as a child, formicarium is the technical term, but we all know what they are for. They are so we can watch them work and then shake up the sand and laugh at the unfairness of it all. Soon enough, our apartment was full of an elaborate maze of insect habitats. Not just ants, either.

Cockroaches, cicadas, grasshoppers, spiders. At night I sometimes thought I could hear her shuffling around in slippers, and I'd call out, realizing as my voice cracked in dry air that it was just the sound of insect legs and beetle wings rubbing against one another. Maybe just a dream away my wife wandered through empty halls, calling for me and finding nothing but insects in my place.

I tried to stick to random chance as much as possible, even deferring to a set of dice: which cockroach would get fed, and which would be locked in a jam jar with ventilation but no food until it ever-so-slowly starved to death?

I know that we like the big payoff of a happy ending. The myth that, despite all the challenges set in our way, we will overcome and emerge victorious. But that’s not really how life works out most of the time, is it?

Eventually, my therapists gave up on me and instead committed me to an institution, (“...they can care for you better than we can...” I hardly heard them or cared) which is unfortunate for all my insects since they all surely starved to death with no one to look after them.

To heal I had to let go of her, and she was the one thing in my life that had ever actually given me true joy. To let go of her was a betrayal. Even if there was some way that I could do it, I wouldn’t do it. I died with you, Sheila. This body shuffles through these corridors, but I died with you. Your grave is in my pocket, and I lie down every night beside you, still making room on your side of the bed, until the day when I can join you for real.

Though maybe there is a silver lining after all, as they say. Few decisions are left up to patient discretion in here, aside from what we have for food from a very limited selection, and I have made arrangements so that someone even makes that choice for me.

Most days I sit by the barred window, and stare outside as the sun rises, peaks, and sets, and think of nothing at all.

By James Curcio

All It Takes Is The Right Story.
Mythos Media

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