Featured Fiction: Irreconcilable Differences

I just called it the beach.  I knew it was completely unoriginal, but what did it really matter? It was the only beach I ever visited.  I suppose true beach aficionados would think me a Philistine for believing that when you’ve seen one beach you’ve seen them all, but… that’s how I feel about it and my opinion counts for every bit as much as another guy’s.  And on that beach, of course, my opinion counted for more than anyone else’s.

It was comfortably warm and breezy, the sun only an hour up off the eastern horizon.  I didn’t walk too near the waves gliding across the white sand.  I wasn’t there to play, obviously.  I was only having the meeting there because I thought it would help me stay calm during the whole ordeal.

His desk was still empty when I finally reached it just inside the tree line.  I know that sounds like another lapse of creativity.  But the goal of having the meeting there was to help me relax, not to render me comatose so I’d make a mistake.  I figured if I played the guy and his desk straight it’d keep me honest.

I took my usual place in the hammock.  The desk was positioned so that I could see it from there.  Tina brought me a drink.  I refused it.  I had thought I should turn that service off since I didn’t intend to use it, but, to be perfectly honest, I just love the way she looks at me.

About that time Mr. Lewis walked up to his desk and said, “Good morning, Anthony.”

“Top ‘o the mornin’ to YOU, Mr. Lewis,” I said, using up the rest of my good mood while I still had it.

Mr. Lewis sat down and pulled a legal pad and a pen out of one of the drawers.  You’d have guessed it was the millionth time he’d executed that particular maneuver by the way he did it.  Eyes drooped.  An exasperated sigh tumbling from his thin lips.  One hand rubbing his bald head while the other did all the work.   His fat, pale fingers digging around for several seconds before he was able to actually snag a cheap Bic.

“So,” he said, “your father tells me you’d like to file for divorce.”

These old guys always killed me with their direct approach.  I mean, we were on a beach, for cripes sakes.  Well, I was anyway… and he would have been, too, if he hadn’t been born back in the twentieth century.  We could both enjoy the view and ease into business if he could just lighten up a little.  But these guys from my dad’s generation, they just didn’t get it.

“Yes, sir, that’s correct,” I said.  “And I wouldn’t mind a bit if it was quick.”

“Not likely,” he said, already taking notes although I couldn’t imagine about what.  “Your father is quite certain she’ll sue for alimony and challenge your child custody rights.”

“Well, it sounds as though Dad’s already brought you up to speed.  What do you need to talk to me for?”  I probably sounded resentful, but I truly was trying to speed the process along.

“I just need to ask you some questions,” he replied dryly, implying that he, too, wished he could handle this all through my father.  “Of course the first question is,” he said, “what is the reason that you’re seeking to divorce your wife?”

“Irreconcilable differences,” I said.  I’d read somewhere that “irreconcilable differences” was the best reason to give.  It was short, vague, but decisive.  Bureaucrats love that combination.

But Mr. Lewis was no bureaucrat, apparently.  “And what kinds of differences are we talking about?”

My first impulse was to tell him it wasn’t anybody’s business what the differences were.  I’d said the magic words.  “Irreconcilable differences.”  That should have sealed it.  The river should have parted and I should have been allowed to pass dry-shod over to the shore of sweet freedom.  He must have sensed my incredulity (after all, he was seeing my actual face) because he immediately explained, “Her side will try to discredit you.  They’ll try to suggest you’re unfaithful to your wife and that is the reason you want to split up.”

“She’s got no proof of that,” I said.  Which was true.  She didn’t.

“So you aren’t faithful to your wife, Anthony? I realize that’s a personal question but I’m going to be your divorce lawyer and I really need to know.”

“I’ve never been with another woman since I married Cynthia,” I said confidently.

And then, not looking up from his legal pad, he asked, “Have you engaged in cybersex since you’ve been married?”

It took all of my power not to howl with laughter.  “Cybersex” he said.  I hadn’t heard that term in ages, and when I heard it the last time it was from someone explaining to me what it was since I’d never heard of it before.  It was hard to imagine that people ever considered anything that took place on the ‘Net to be worthy of the label “sex”.  I mean, the person who came up with that term had obviously never even HAD sex.  (I think it was Bill Gates, God rest him.)

“No,” I said.

“So, just so we’re clear on this,” he said, “if your wife’s lawyer subpoenas recordings of your online activities, there will be no compromising scenes in those recordings?”

“Whoa, whoa… hold up there, sir,” I said.  “Nobody has a right to monitor my online activity OR to acquire any recorded matter I may or may not have.”

“I’m afraid you’re mistaken on that score, Anthony,” he said.  “It’s a contested law these days, but it still applies.  If you have sex online…”

“Absurd,” I cut in.  “Nobody has actual sex online.  It’s physically impossible.”

“If you have sex online,” he continued, “then she can counter-sue on the grounds of infidelity and she can win.”

That was intensely bad news.  Maybe I shouldn’t have turned Tina down after all.  “OK,” I said.  “How can we beat this?”

Mr. Lewis peered up over his glasses.  “Tell me what it is you’re having differences about.”

This was suddenly all much more involved than I thought it’d be.  I didn’t want to sit and tell this old man about my life.  Not because I was ashamed of it.  No, not by any means.  But I was just certain he wouldn’t understand it.  “Well,” I said tentatively, “it so happens we disagree on only one thing.  And that is…”

“Yes?”

I sighed.  This was shaping up to be a very long day.  “That is, she wants me to tell her what kinds of things happen in my pod.”

The telltale signs of confusion cascaded across his face.  The wrinkled forehead.  The furrowed brow.  “You mean, she wants to know what you play or watch on your pod?”

“No,” I said almost before he finished.  “She wants to know what I do IN my pod.”

He tapped his Bic on the desk a few times.  “What, precisely, are we talking about here, Anthony?”

Questions like this from the previous generation always amazed me.  I mean, THEY had the Internet and Playstations and cell phones and, of course, the original iPods.  THEY grew up in a world of twenty-four hour, interactive television.  WHY didn’t any of them even seem to KNOW about newer technology?

I reached into the breast-pocket of my shirt and pulled out the love of my life, a thin device that he would have said was about the size of a credit card.  “See this gizmo, Mr. Lewis?”

“Yes, I see it.”

“Well, you don’t know it, but right now it’s making sure that, as I talk to you, I’m sitting in a comfortable hammock on a beautiful sandy beach with extremely hot girls serving me drinks.”

I was pleasantly surprised by a note of recognition.  “Ah… yes, THOSE things,” he said.

“This is my pod,” I continued.  “With this I live in the world I want to live in.  That is, until I get home and shut it off and live in the real world with my wife.”

He started writing again.  “So, you’re, um… in your pod… all day except when home.”

“That’s correct.  Because, let’s be frank, Mr. Lewis, every human mind craves the real thing now and then.  Isn’t that right?” I said with a twinkle in my eye, hoping to create a moment where Mr. Lewis and I could bond as men.

Alas, it wasn’t to be.  “You aren’t concerned that your wife will suggest that this kind of thing isn’t healthy?” he said.

He certainly wasn’t making things easy.  But about then I decided that perhaps that was a good thing.  I mean, after all, my wife’s lawyers weren’t going to show up with gloves on, that was certain.  “Well, Mr. Lewis, I’ll explain it to you the same way I explained it to my wife.”

“See, it works this way,” I began.  “If I spend my entire day away from home within a world that’s mostly of my choosing, two things happen.  One, I get a lot of hedonistic stuff out of my system.  And two, I begin to long for experiences that aren’t so artificial.  So by the time I get home and turn this little baby off, I’m the ideal husband and father.”

“So,” he replied, not looking up from his legal pad, “you’re saying that carrying this device around provides a kind of therapy?”

That didn’t sound as cool as the way I described it, but I went ahead and said, “Sure, why not.”

He put the Bic down for the first time and said, “But Anthony, you have to go to your job and you have to interact with people throughout your day.  You can’t expect anyone to believe that you spend all day in… in your pod.”

Spoken like a true twentieth century man.  To his cohort electronics were a source of entertainment, not a way of life.  How was I going to help him understand?

“Look, Mr. Lewis,” I said, “here in my pod I can make anything look like anything ELSE I want.  I can make any person look and sound like anyone ELSE I want.  Is this conversation protected by, you know, lawyer-client privilege or whatever?”

“Of course,” he said.

“Well, the only way I’ve been able to stay at my job, rise quickly through the ranks, and achieve the productivity that provides the money that gives me the power to keep my wife living the lifestyle to which she’s become accustomed… do you want to know how I’ve done it, Mr. Lewis?”

He looked about as interested as when he’d gone hunting for his Bic.  “Do tell,” he said.

“In here… in MY pod… all of my coworkers are very hot, VERY naked young women.”

I was disappointed in his reaction.  Well, actually, his lack of one.  I mean, everyone I knew wanted to know the secret of my success and here I’d just shared the genius of it with him.  And his reaction was nothing.  I wondered if he just didn’t understand the ramifications, him being old and all.

“See, when the person talking to you is a naked young woman, you don’t even care if she says something stupid or confrontational.  It’s all good!”

Again with no reaction.  He wasn’t going to get it.

“Mr. Lewis,” I said, “I’m not alone in having a pod, and I’m FAR from alone in how I use it.  I mean, I have a good friend who's a white guy like me but requests that in MY pod I portray him as an African-American woman.”

I finally got some eyebrows to rise on that one.

“And I do.  And then he comes over to our house for supper and I see him as God intended, all without me ever wondering who I’m really talking to… in my pod or out.  Are you hearing what I’m saying?”

He started writing again.  “Not really, Anthony, but I imagine very soon you’ll say something I can comprehend.”

At this point I was really starting to question Mr. Lewis’ intellect.  “What’s that over there?” I asked.

He looked up from his pad and said, “It’s a chair.”

“I see a rock,” I said.  “I mean, I could see it as a chair if I wanted to, but it was just quicker to ask you what it was.  But that’s what the pod does.  It sees the real world for me and changes it however I want it changed.  If there are objects I want to see as realistic as possible, such as you for example… although I confess I’m rethinking THAT decision… then the pod shows me the real thing.  But otherwise it takes the real world and shows it to me in whatever way I want to see it.  Are you starting to get it now?”

“Yes, I believe I am,” Mr. Lewis said, but I got the impression he was referring to something somewhere beyond what I was talking about.

“I’m God in my pod,” I said, hoping the ubiquitous marketing slogan for the device would spark enlightenment.

But he just released an uncharacteristic chuckle and said, “Yes, I get it.”

“I don’t think you do,” I said.  “Because the only way I can be the man my wife loves when I turn this thing off… the only way I can WANT to be that man and turn it off… is because everything that happens to me when I have it on is known only to me.”

“It doesn’t work that way, Anthony,” he said.

“Why doesn’t it?” I asked.  “Mr. Lewis, what if I couldn’t actually see the beach I’m on right now and instead I could just see you and your office, but I IMAGINED I was actually at the beach? Would THAT be anybody’s business?”

“No.”

“No!” I said.  “So now that I have a machine in my pocket that lets me actually see, hear, taste, and smell what I imagine, that means everyone else needs to know about it?"

“That sounds like a philosophical question to me, Anthony, and I’m a lawyer, not a philosopher.”

“Well surely you have an opinion.”

“The thing about the latter experiences,” he said, finally looking me in the eye again, “is that others CAN directly participate in them, Anthony.  And for some time now that has been reason enough for them to think they OUGHT to have a say in them.”  He resumed writing.  “These days the boundary of your private sphere is your skull.  Right or wrong, Anthony, that’s what you’re up against.”

That didn’t seem right at all.  “But nothing that happens in here is REAL!  How can I be held accountable for things that are really only happening in my mind and not in the REAL world?”

Mr. Lewis shrugged.  “Well, it must possess some significant measure of reality, Anthony, or your unassisted imagination would suffice.”

And that’s when it hit me.  All of the things I’d done in my pod… all of the things I didn’t want anyone else to know about… any part or all of it could be found out and used against me.  And if that happened I could lose more than my wife.  I could lose everything.

I was really desperate now.  “Mr. Lewis, I’m certain you’re not aware of this, but an entire culture has grown up around the use of these pods.”

“Oh I have no doubt,” he said with a touch of irony.

I ignored it.  “It’s understood that one doesn’t ask about what goes on in another person’s pod.  But it isn’t simply a matter of being polite.  To ask such a thing is seen as a kind of harassment.”

He cocked his head in a quaint show of curiosity.  “Truly, Anthony?”

“Yes!  Why do you think I’m filing for divorce?”

“You didn’t give harassment as a reason.”

“Well I didn’t know it would come to this,” I said.

Mr. Lewis started writing in his pad with a vigor I hadn’t thought possible for him.  “Does your wife also have a pod?” he asked.

I didn’t like where that question was leading.  “Yes.  Yes, she does, but…”

“And have you ever inquired as to what goes on in hers?”

The thought made my stomach turn.  “Well, no, of course not.  I don’t WANT to know…”

Mr. Lewis held up one finger as if encouraging me to stop speaking.  He wrote several lines more.

“Anthony, I doubt I’ll find any laws that speak to this case directly, but I’ll bet we can successfully sue your wife for mental anguish and bring this matter to a quick and clean close.”

“Mental anguish?” I asked.

“Yes!” he said.  “Harassment.  Isn’t that the word you used?”

It was the word I used.  But I just wanted to divorce my wife, not ruin her reputation.  “Mr. Lewis, why don’t we stick with irreconcilable differences…”

“Because you’ll lose," he interrupted.  “She’ll expose your activities in… in there… and you’ll lose for certain.”

This was a tremendous shock, I don’t mind telling you.  And I suppose a less magnanimous man would see it as some sort of twisted justice to threaten to tap her pod, too, but… it just seemed so wrong to me.

“You know what, Mr. Lewis?” I said.  “I think I’d like to maybe try to work things out with my wife after all.”

“Why?” he asked.  “I think we’ve got an ironclad case here!”

Without thinking about it I said, “Because I can’t bring myself to do to her what I wouldn’t want her to do to me.”

And then I saw Mr. Lewis smile.  I could hardly believe it because in all the years I’d known him since he started working for Dad I’d never seen him smile.  “I wondered,” he said.

“Wondered what?”

“I wondered if that little machine had the effect of enhancing your imagination or stunting it.”

I hadn’t really thought about it that way before.  “Well, it probably varies based on who you ask.  But I take it you’ve figured out which is the case for me?”

“No,” he said.

I waited a few seconds and said, “What?”

He smiled again and said, “It’s difficult to tell which.  But there’s at least enough of your imagination left to think about how your actions might impact your wife.  And that’s a good thing.”

Neither of us said anything for a while.  Then Mr. Lewis said, “Good day, Anthony,” and he got up and left.

Tina stopped by and asked me if I was ready for a drink yet. She was a tall, pale redhead with green eyes and an impossibly perfect body that, presently, wore the smallest bikini a woman can wear and still call it a “swim suit”.  The site I downloaded her from was the best for that kind of thing.  But I told her, “No.”

“No," I said.  "I need to get home to my wife.”

Redheads

And why do redheads always get the bad rap?  What's up with that?  Sometimes we can be the girl next door, even if we are hot in a bikini.

Irreconcilable Differences

This is an interesting 21st century take on a struggle relationships have had through time.  You have a comfortable relationship where you stay together out of the safety of having someone close, but the emotional closeness and the physical connection have left years ago. What do you do when you don't want to hurt anyone, yet in your heart, you already feel alone?  You and the other person have left long ago.  So, you daydream, invent life how you would like it to be, so that you don't have to deal with the pain of that loss or hurt anyone.  So, I like the ending to the story. Not that I think he is going to go home to his wife to necessarily make it all of a sudden better.  But rather, to figure out who he is, and see if he really should end the relationship on irreconcilable differences.  Rather than have to hide in that imaginary world.  He should be out really living it.

Will he really try to find himself?

Ah but that's just it.... isn't it?  Will he really try to find himself?

What makes this interesting to me - is how his concept of the "pod" helped Anthony to compartmentalize the lies he told in his own head.  It somehow holds the lie as external to his self identity/humanily while still being soothing to him in specific situations.  Indeed it helped him to feel "innocent" and "blameless" ...but it is also what comforted him into believing that his innocence/humanity was not in question. 

While it's true this probably helped Anthony to not engage in other riskier behaviors, it did not help him to grow personally either.  It only helped him to avoid whatever it was that made him uncomfortable in the first place.  Whatever betterment he perceived in reality was dependent upon something imaginary and outside himself - and thus he never really grew more confident, just complacent.  Take the device away, and you'd take his self confidence and his perceived innocence with it. 

It seems perhaps, this lawsuit was enough to bring him to a point where he couldn't imagine that he was blameless in the situation with his wife because the suffering he brought to his wife would be physically provable. (Taking away his perception of self innocence)  Maybe the threat of being exposed will actually even prompt him to throw away his pod... but his motive for doing this would be important.  He could chose to grow from this, it's true, but Anthony will still be faced with the choice of whether or not to resent being "forced" to change.  He could just resent being "caught" and want to prevent that from happening again by being even more secretive.

Nothing about his situation in relation to his pod has taught him how to overcome his complacency in the area of self development.

Perhaps he would even choose to feel like a victim (insulating himself with another version of a self perception of innocence).  From there he could justify creating this imaginary world in his own head.

Even if he has good intentions and starts down the right path...  say in an attempt to make things better with his wife - he may come across some new obstacle that shakes his faith.
He comes home ready to begin anew - and receives a skeptical, cold shoulder perhaps... or even worse - as they're working through things, he finds out that his wife felt so estranged that she had an affair.  Instead of creating a world where he is aggrandized and superior, in this case it might be easier for him to villify his wife. 

He might imagine/rationalize that his wife deserved the treatment she received... all without much thought to how much it cost himself and his humanity to be an ass in the first place.  Perhaps even with people outside of the situation cheering on the way and supporting his justifications, they're back to divorce court again.

For Anthony to change, he has to want to change for a reason inside himself - not for a carrot at the end of a stick. 
Wanting his marriage, or for his wife to be happy is not enough - he has to want to be a better person even if it means he can't guarantee the outcome.

Wow!

There are just so many things I love about this story. For one thing, the whole writing style--the kind of detective style narration. And the way it illustrates so many of the ideas you talk about under "Governing Princciple" and elsewhere. But the main thing I'm really learning/taking away is the way in which that notion of God that Anthony has when he talks about "God in the pod"--how prevalent, and how wrong-headed it is. I mean essentially that's what the Faust story is about too--that Faust thinks that is what God is, and he wants it. But what an isolated and solipsistic version of God compared to the one who teaches "Do unto others..."

Great, great story...

God in my pod

Agree that it is a great story. The story, all the way to the end seemed to demonstrate what's right and what's wrong based solely on perception. In Anthony's mind, no matter what he did, if it's not real, he didn't consider it wrong. And, yes, "I'm God in my pod"... a fatalistic and even belittling attitude considering what he would do in that pod was wrong in consequence of his marriage, if not generally. Suggesting that by "playing God" he doesn't conform to any discrimination or wrong-doing on his part because he's altogether abstaining any contentious actions... as if it's absurd to be in the "hot seat".

I LOVED that it was questioned whether or not the device enhanced or stunted his imagination. I didn't gather any direct answer from the story but Anthony's unwillingness to see past his own wrong-doing would suggest a limited imagination - or, at least, a controlled one. However when Mr. Lewis suggested that he "do onto others" (as jaz nicely put it) as his wife, he was enlightened... just as he had previously tried to "ubiquitously" enlighten Mr. Lewis on the notion that he is God in his pod.

Imagination

Yeah, that's a great point about his imagination kat...the way being God in the pod isn't creative/imaginative (so really not much of a God, heh...) but that imagining/empathizing with his wife's own pod experience...I just love the layers of how that worked and the inversions.

And was an interesting comment on what's necessary to tolerate the life of a modern day worker...

And was an interesting comment on what's necessary

Naked girls!  Naked girls!

*ahem*

 ...scuse me whilst I go compose myself.