Literary Orphans

Side Effects May Include
by Arielle Baer

In Balance by Manuel

He takes his bourbon neat because that’s how he likes most things. His mother had thought him an anomaly the way he kept his room so clean. Not even a stray dirty sock stuck under the bed. She worried that it might be a sign of something more serious. She had heard her girlfriends mention a disorder called OCD in reference to the way their husbands preferred everything just so (and what was so wrong with that really, she wondered) but when she looked it up at home on the laptop her husband bought her for Christmas (even though she insisted she would never use such a thing but recently found herself turning to it more and more for even the most ridiculous of reasons) and saw the definition and symptoms – “unwanted and repeated thoughts and feelings; the need to perform a certain task over and over again out of fear of possible repercussions” – these didn’t sound like her son (or her friends’ husbands for that matter) so she tucked the worry away and just focused on how lucky she was to have such an exemplary child. He would never use such a word to describe himself, but his mother, being a lonely woman, was always one for overstatements. He is just a man who knows how he likes things.

He takes his morning coffee light and sweet and his second cup, later in the afternoon, dark and bitter. Both cups must be steaming hot. He goes by Daniel and hates when people call him either Dan or Danny. He never allows himself more than three alcoholic beverages in the same night. If he does he knows he’ll wake up with a migraine. And if for some reason in the morning the lights are burning his eyes and the sound of the traffic outside is like sharp nails scratching down the left side of his head then he takes two Anacin with a large glass of salt water and goes back to bed. He always drives to work in silence and only ever writes in black ink. He has a chicken ceasar salad from the diner down the block for lunch every day and if he is still hungry he’ll allow himself one pastry from the Italian bakery next door. He never bets on sports. He flosses once in the morning and once at night. If he has to drink wine he prefers red. And when he dates, which he’ll admit is a rare occurrence, he tends towards short brunettes.

He hates cats and he never slept past 8am. He hasn’t thought about his mother in months and his father in even longer. He can remember his first grade teacher’s name and the way her voice sounded when she got angry, which was often, but he refuses to acknowledge his own birthday. He’s seen every James Bond movie (Pierce Brosnon is still his favorite) and he’ll eat beef if it’s well done but he prefers chicken. He’s never visited his brother once during his twenty five to life sentence. He sends his great aunt a card every New Years and a bouquet of flowers to the Martinez family every year on April the 12th.

He sees his therapist, Dr. Allans, once a week and even though he doesn’t believe in the stuff, he still lets himself be hypnotized and recorded. Every Tuesday evening he arrives ten minutes early for his 7:15pm appointment. He always parks in the spot furthest from the door because he doesn’t mind walking, even when it’s raining. He sits in the third chair in the waiting room which is always empty because technically Dr. Allans stops seeing patients at 6pm but makes an exception for him because he has never missed a payment or been late for an appointment.

Dr. Allans would rather he lay down on the couch when they have their session but he doesn’t find that to be comfortable so instead he sits in an oversized armchair which is as close to relaxed as he can get in a doctor’s office.

Dr. Allans insists they are making great progress. That many repressed memories will soon make themselves known and who knows where that will take them. Those are the words the doctor used and, as an uninsured patient, he finds this troubling, the idea that this exercise they’re attempting could go on for much longer, slowly draining his savings.

Technically, he doesn’t need to work to make money. His inheritance sees to that. Once a month he writes a check out to a different charity. He tries not to send to the same place twice in one year because there are a lot of people who need help. He likes to read at least one book a month and usually goes to the movies alone every Friday night. In the summer he’ll stop for ice cream on the way home. He likes vanilla but will sometimes go for mint chocolate chip. He gets his haircut once every six weeks at the same barbershop his mother used to take him to when he was younger. He prefers this particular barbershop because even though they know him no one mentions his brother. They have five barbers that work there but he always waits for Charlie, the only man who’s cut his hair in the past two decades save for the four months last winter when Charlie was out recovering from pneumonia.

He still gets angry phone calls to his house every once and awhile, even though his number isn’t listed. He wonders how people find his number and if that means that they also know where he lives. As a rule he screens his calls at home and at work. He only answers if it’s Dr. Allans or his accountant. His brother hasn’t called in at least two years but he still waits for the same recording that plays when an inmate makes a personal call. He likes to garden in the summer and once tried to grow his own pumpkin for halloween but all he managed to produce was a misshapen yellow gourd that he carved anyway and proudly displayed on his front stoop. He found it crushed the next morning when he went out to clean the eggs off his car.

He owns a large collection of vintage records, mostly blues and jazz, but hardly ever plays them. His father was a huge jazz aficionado and his brother played the saxophone. The records were a passion of theirs. The albums were left to him in the inheritance, along with a Crosley turntable. He didn’t have the heart to throw them away so he packed the turntable and records away in his study and only takes them out once a year to clean the vinyl like he had seen his father do when he was young. He prefers classical music himself but his father didn’t own any classical records. He never considers buying any to play on the Crosley.

He does his best to avoid the park so he doesn’t have to see the families. He tries not to watch too much television but when he does it’s usually a PBS historical documentary. He hasn’t watched the local news in four years. He canceled his New York Times subscription but it kept on coming anyway, the familiar slap of the rolled up paper hitting his door front every morning at 7am. At first he brought them in only to throw them away but after a while he just let them pile up outside his house until the paperboy got the message.

He once dyed his hair black to cover his grey hairs but when people made comments about it at work he decided to just let the grey grow in. He shaves every morning with a straight razor and he never takes public transportation. He’s also not a fan of flying. He makes sure to change the oil in his car once a year according to the vehicle manufacturer’s suggestion. Once every other week he stops at the gas station a mile from his home and pays a quarter to use the vacuum. He doesn’t allow himself to eat in the car and rarely takes passengers so this biweekly cleaning is done more for peace of mind than out of necessity.

Sometimes he dreams about the accident and wakes up drenched in sweat. Most mornings his jaw hurts from grinding at night. He has a mouth guard that his dentist made for him. He was told it would help with the grinding. He finds it very uncomfortable so he usually only wears it for part of the night even though his dentist advised him against it. He’s worried about the state of his teeth. Dr. Allans suggested hypnotism to cure the grinding. It’s something they’re going to try in a later session, after they deal with the nightmares.

Dr. Allans says it’s unfair for him to blame his parents. That they were as hurt by the accident as he was, if not more. This is one of the many things he disagrees with Dr. Allans on. He tries to explain that the doctor did not know his parents. He did not see them for the cold individuals they were and that even though they were around when he and his brother grew up they were also not really there at all. He tells Dr. Allans that his mother was the one that encouraged his brother to apply for the bus driver position. That she baked him a cake when he got the job. That even though they have been dead now for almost a year it feels like it’s been much longer.

He is paranoid about getting cancer. He checks his testicles regularly, feeling for bumps that aren’t there. He doesn’t smoke and avoids those who do even though neither his father or mother died from lung cancer (it was pancreatic and ovarian, respectively). He keeps a list of highly cancerous foods (which includes processed meats, bleached flours, and high fructose corn syrup) on his fridge and cut them from his diet. He has his thyroid tested at his annual checkup. He never goes outside without applying at least one layer of SPF 15.

He still turns down any interview requests he receives. Even though they’ve decreased in number recently, he expects them to increase soon with the five year anniversary only a few months away. Dr. Allans suggests he take a vacation that week. That he go somewhere “tropical, with native girls.” Dr. Allans insists he not be in the city this April the 12th.

Sometimes he’d like to tell Dr. Allans to go fuck himself. To take his phony fucking degree and his bullshit science and shove it up his ass. Sometimes he thinks he’d like for the whole world to just shut up for a minute and let him think. He wishes that Debbie, who sits next to him at work, wouldn’t listen to her music so loud or if she had to then at least listen to something better. At night he imagines himself finally telling his father exactly what he thought of him. Most days he daydreams about his mother and her episodes. He likes to visualize himself slapping her, grabbing her by the shoulders and shaking some sense into her during those moments when she got so hysterical it seemed she forgot he and his brother even existed. He fantasizes about white picket fences and golden retrievers and fathers who don’t work double shifts and mothers who never cry and always have dinner ready when her family got home.

April the 12th comes and goes without incident and he wonders if the world has already forgotten about his brother, about the accident. He knows that the families of the victims – those on the bus and those in the park – haven’t, couldn’t have possibly forgotten. But maybe they’re doing their best to act like they have. To wake up every morning without a cold feeling inside, without the knowledge that whatever they do that day is worthless. Maybe they take their coffee without sugar one day just to see how it tastes and then they laugh with their friends when they spit out the dark, bitter liquid because, as it turns out, they really don’t like coffee at all. Maybe they call out of work just for the hell of it and spend the day walking the beach then going to a movie. Maybe they make a mess in the kitchen and then don’t clean it up. Maybe they finally try Indian food even though they swore they never would. Maybe they finally talk to that girl they’ve been eyeing all semester. Maybe they drink a six pack of lager even though they have work the next day. Or maybe the world has just forgotten and he’s the one left remembering it all.
–Story by Arielle Baer
–Photography by Manuel Estheim