Dorene O’Brien

Anywhere But Here

“So I have these fantasies,” I say. “Haven’t you ever gone to a rock concert and imagined yourself on stage kicking out riffs that would make Hendrix cry? Haven’t you ever pretended to be a princess, a soldier, the victim of unspeakable tragedy?”

June and Mary Jo stare at me like I’ve got one eye, June because she’s confused and Mary Jo because she’s not.

Mary Jo, who is smart but more boring than an empty thimble, tries to shake it all out for her. “She checks out,” she says, jerking her head toward me dismissively. “When the going gets tough, well, you know.”

“Not really,” says June, slapping a warranty file into its cardboard sleeve, and shortly thereafter Mary Jo launches into a monologue about the sanctity of our inner thoughts. Or, more aptly, about what happened last year because I didn’t respect the sanctity of my inner thoughts. I listen to her monotonous drone, watch her touch June’s arm conspiratorially as she speaks, and before long I find myself sitting on the cape of a top-down convertible in a white chiffon A-line, one sleek arm waving to admirers and the other righting my pillbox hat. It’s me they love; of that, I suddenly realize, there is no question. So in a matter of seconds I regret that I begrudged my husband the power, the popularity, the affair. Rage and envy were my only counsel when I colluded with the Secret Service, and in the instant my husband’s arm throws a shadow across my white satin mule, I understand that it is within my power to direct history. Marilyn’s dead anyway, so as the limo rounds Elm to enter the plaza, I lean over to kiss Jack and the bullet shatters my spine.

“Okay,” I interrupt Mary Jo’s eulogy to private thoughts. “How about this?” I relay my Kennedy fantasy and June says, “Was she wearing an A-line?”

“No,” says Mary Jo. “She was wearing a pink Chanel suit. She got the hat right, though.”

“It’s my fantasy,” I say. “If I’m going to take a bullet for someone, I’ll be damned if I can’t choose what to wear when I do it.”

“Correct me if I’m wrong, Kate,” says Mary Jo, “but aren’t fantasies supposed to be pleasant?”

“What’s unpleasant about keeping Kennedy in the White House?” I smile, and Mary Jo shakes her head, refuses to laugh, remains the ever-stalwart emblem of propriety.

*     *     *

At lunch I notice June staring as I eat my fried bologna sandwich.

“What are you thinking about?” she asks.

“I’m thinking about eating my sandwich.”

“Are you pretending it’s a steak sandwich with sautéed mushrooms and green peppers, maybe on an onion roll with a little sweet mustard?”

“Hey,” I say. ”Not bad.”

“I’ve been thinking about it.”

“Don’t do that,” I warn. “Fantasies should come naturally. Those are the best ones.”

“What if I’m not a natural?”

“Mary Jo’s not a natural,” I say. “There’s hope for you.”

The trick with fantasies is to let them take over when you most need them, but the real challenge is to let them play out, to resist the urge to stop them because you feel embarrassed or ashamed. Last year when my sister started it all, I had a vivid fantasy about making a solo ascent to the top of Everest, where within seconds I’d sucked my oxygen bottles dry and was struggling for breath. Shrieking winds blew sheets of snow horizontally at tornado speeds, visibility was zero and the wind chill plunged to 130 below. I then stumbled upon something soft and red, a diagonal gash in the snow: a sleeping bag. The man inside was weak, his face badly frostbitten and his mittened hands clutching—of course—an oxygen bottle. He managed to tell me that he needed rest before his descent, that he had a daughter who looked like me, but it wasn’t long before he noticed my labored breathing, my desperate glances at the silver canister.

“You have any more?” I nodded toward his hands.

“No,” he said. “I’ll kill you.”

I took the bottle from him and never looked back, although today I pretend when I hear footsteps behind me or when a man exits my subway stop that it is him preparing to make good on his threat. I pretend his hatred for me fueled his will to survive, that he stumbled down the mountain on legs he couldn’t feel and toes he would later hack off himself while waiting for an airlift to Tibet. He is, in short, a determined man. I tell June about my mountain climbing fantasy. She says, “Sheesh.” Then she shares some fantasies about her kids, Ben Jr. making it to the minors and Sally Jo marrying Justin Timberlake and serving Kung Pao Chicken at the wedding, and it’s hard not to drift off while listening to her.

“Don’t you ever imagine bad things happening to your children?” I ask, and I understand by the look on her face that I’ve said something horrible. “I don’t mean bad in that way,” I say. “I mean, do they have to be successful all the time?”

“In my fantasies they are,” she says curtly.

“Well, sure. Why not? I like the Kung Pao touch.”

“It’s my favorite,” she smiles. “Justin insisted.”

“That’s all right,” I say.

*     *     *

By the time I get home I’m beat, especially after trudging up three flights of stairs to my apartment, and what I find waiting for me are three urgent phone messages from my sister Delia. Of course I don’t return her calls; you wouldn’t either if you knew what she wanted. Instead, I run a hot bath, settle in with a cup of green tea and, as always since the blockbuster movie came out, suppress the Titanic survivor fantasy. Instead, I see steam rising from the baths at Pharsala, and the moment I place the hyper-extended big toe on my right foot into the water, I see the slaves mixing oils for my dark skin and thick hair. When I exit the baths, I’ll be rubbed of any memory of Cornelia for tomorrow I’ll become Caesar’s wife, and I will become him. This is what he has said will happen, and he is arrogant enough to believe it. As the hot tea seeps down my throat, I feel the satisfying burn of hemlock. I’ve had this fantasy before, and while for a time it was my favorite, I’ll admit it’s getting old. The first time I imagined it—like the first time with anything, I guess—I got swept up. I screamed when I pictured the slaves slapping the cup from my hands and dragging me from the baths to answer to Caesar: “No! Don’t touch me! I’ll die before I go with you!” Before I knew it, Mr. Lipshitz from next door had burst through my bathroom door brandishing a skillet. I told him I was enrolled in a drama class; I had used this excuse once before when I imagined I was Anne Frank giving Hitler hell on the subway. I’m the first to admit that I sometimes take it too far.

The phone rings as I slurp the last of my tea, and I slump down in the tub until my ears are submerged, but I can still hear it. So I immerse my head entirely and, as always, think of and immediately dismiss Jacques Cousteau: I always get caught up in the accent and lose the fantasy. I think of otters and porpoises but can’t generate any good visuals, so I don’t push it. When I can no longer hold my breath—another good reason I can’t get into underwater fantasies—I lift only my nose above the water and think periscope. Then I think: The Hunt for Red October, which of course makes me think of Sean Connery, who grows amorous with me in the bathtub until he turns into my father.

I climb out of the tub, and, before I even dry off, I unplug the phone. Then I go back to the bathroom for a reality check, something my former shrink said I should do since I fantasize so much. “The mirror doesn’t lie,” she’d said, and at that moment I imagined placing a circus mirror above my sink to prove her wrong and to see myself differently. I imagined how my face would look in front of that mirror: stretched and flattened, twisted, amorphous, unrecognizable. So I begin the reality check with my nose and work in a circular motion until each part of my face coalesces into a whole I slowly grow to recognize as Gwyneth Paltrow, or someone who looks like Gwyneth Paltrow, only not as pretty. When I hop into bed, Delia’s words claw their way into my thoughts, so I drift into a fantasy that I’m a nighttime soap star who gets knocked up by a coworker while filming a sex scene. The coworker, of course, is married to another regular on the show who is scheduled to die of Lou Gehrig’s disease next season so she can film a potboiler with Sean Penn. He leaves her for me, her career takes off—there is no need to be selfish in fantasies—and our love child, Montrose, becomes a fairly successful trapeze artist. I finally drift off to sleep, but of course I always wake up, my mind snagging on something so sharp that I immediately pull back and push off in another direction, away from the minefields and the trap doors I stumble upon so absently. My mind, I whisper as I clutch my head in an effort to suppress its arcs, to calm it into sleep. I have to keep my mind.

The next day at work, June grabs my arm before I can even take off my coat. “Listen to this,” she says. “The mailman knocked on my door last night, and he had a special delivery.”

“Go on,” I say, unwinding my scarf.

“Penn State wants to see Benny at try outs.”

I stare at her for a moment, but I’m still not sure. “Are you serious?” I ask, and she looks hurt.

“Of course I’m serious,” she says. Then she winks and adds, “He had a little special delivery for me, too.”

“Listen, June,” I say, “it is a cardinal sin to mix fantasy and reality. You use one to manage the other.”

At the mention of cardinal sin, Mary Jo squeaks in wearing a rain bonnet and rubber galoshes.

“Says who?” asks June.

“Says my shrink.”

“What would she know?” snaps Mary Jo, who has made it understood that she blames my former shrink for the mess she perceives me to be today.

“Mary Jo, you are just cruel,” I say, but I don’t really mean it. Part of me understands.

*     *     *

During break, June talks about her husband’s promotion, her son’s escalating batting average, how the family priest exposed himself to her through the window of the confessional. I finally tell her that she’s making me work too hard.

“Listen,” I say. “Pick one story. Bend it, fold it, twist it and fluff it out.”

She stares at the table for a long time, and I can almost feel the grinding teeth in the rusted cogs of her mind. “Okay,” I say, recalling the first fantasy I had after returning to work last month from forced leave to face Mary Jo’s heartless gaze. “It goes like this: I’m Paul Revere, and I’m smithing a pair of candlesticks—lovely ones, too, with fretwork etchings of Biblical herbs and flowers curving up around the neck—when I get word that the Brits are moving toward Massachusetts. Monroe is sleeping when I throw the saddle across his back, but he leaps into action when I dig in the spurs, and soon we’re flying up Timson’s Trail with an urgent message for the Minutemen. Don’t get me wrong: I understand the gravity of my message and the consequences of a successful ride,; I understand that the heavenly bodies and I are in accord as the moon sweeps my path and the stars wink like channel markers,; I understand that neglecting to secure the saddle ultimately ensures the defeat of the rebels. Of course, I can’t know as I sit in the dirt still straddling the saddle beneath me that America—or Lesser Britain, maybe—will one day be ruled by Prince Charles, that my descendants will find themselves punting on the Potomac, that the Beatles will never come over.”

Mary Jo enters the lunchroom and plops down across from June shortly after Monroe unseats me, and I continue my fantasy above the din of her crackling wax paper.

“Ah,” says June. “So I can be anyone.”

I give her a thumbs up, and Mary Jo slaps her sandwich onto the table and turns to me. “I like you, Kate, I do,” she says, “But you’re living in another world.”

“Yep,” I say. “It’s called Zoron—”

“I’m serious,” she says. “If you don’t knock it off, I’m going to tell Mr. Henny you’re getting weird again. Maybe he’ll spring for a good shrink this time.”

“Mary Jo!” says June.

“I don’t mean to sound cruel,” says Mary Jo, who sounds more frightened than anything, “but it’s for her own good. You weren’t here when she derailed last time….”

Mary Jo speaks candidly as if I’m not even there. She makes me remember what I refuse to remember, so I leave for the moon, where I perform community service 20 hours a week stabbing at fast food wrappers and Styrofoam cups that float from my stick as I work them into a garbage satchel. The moon is not colonized, so where does the trash come from? And how does it stay rooted with only a minimal pull of gravity? Sure, I can come up with answers to those questions, but why work so hard when I can just as easily become Leda to strangle the swan, or an ugly Helen of Troy, or even the woman who finally talks some sense into her sister? I drift in and out—June calls Mary Jo a Goody-Two-Shoes and I find myself naked in front of our building but for a sandwich board and flip-flops, Mary Jo tells June to butt out and I’m suddenly Monica Lewinsky popping Milk Duds on a rollaway in a dark apartment after telling the president of the United States to go fuck himself. I’m Bill Gates caving in, I’m Donald Trump cashing out, I’m the Mona Lisa flipping off spectators before June and Mary Jo reach a stalemate, arms crossed over their chests and eyes glaring like lasers. My mind, I think, I have to keep my mind.

*     *     *

June wasn’t working at Maddox & Bramble last year when I had what my former shrink calls a nervous breakdown but what I prefer to dub my moment of crisis. My sister Delia had taken me to lunch at The Matador, an ersatz Spanish restaurant featuring frijoles refritos, bronze sculpted bulls and a frenetic waitstaff sporting matador caps that recalled the Mouseketeers. She said she had important news. Her shrink had allegedly unearthed the source of her restless nights, her inferiority complex, her diminished sex drive, her failure to concentrate, her fear of the dark, hell, maybe even her inability to balance a checkbook. Never mind about the source of her problems; it was so preposterous that the moment she divulged this breakthrough, this find, this revelatory information, I found myself bobbing about in a raft off the coast of British Columbia in search of the big gun—the humpback whale, thirty-five tons of muscle and mass, blubber and baleen, fins and fortitude. Of course I stationed my dinghy between the unsuspecting whales and the towering wall of the Russian factory ship. Of course I proffered epithets they couldn’t understand and finger language they could. Of course they punctured my raft just left of the outboard motor with a quasi-barbed explosive harpoon that, thankfully, did not discharge. Here’s the part that’s hard to believe: I was catapulted into the 34-degree water, flailing about in my orange Gore-Tex foul weather suit and knit skullcap, awaiting hypothermia when suddenly I felt something as solid as a glacier beneath me, something that lifted me slowly, imparting the elevator sensation before ferrying me safely to shore.

My sister was still there when I crawled ashore and waved goodbye to the lumbering pod of whales; she was crunching on corn chips and green salsa, making slanderous claims at the behest of her analyst, claims that would end with our father in serious trouble. I was shocked and disappointed that her quest for answers would end with her pointing an accusatory finger at the one man who had unflinchingly loved her, loved us both. I was amazed. I was appalled. I left the restaurant. For real.

As I made my way back to the office, I felt like I’d lost my mother again. After all, didn’t Delia make lunches and rig science projects after our own mother left us so long ago? Sure, my sister had been disappearing, too—she had her own family now—but this was a breach, a loss, an end to something lengthy and important that I couldn’t begin to tally as I shuffled up 53rd. What was she thinking? I was worried about my father, and by the time I arrived back at the office, I knew I had to call him. But I didn’t. Instead, I found myself at the Camptown Races, under the limbo stick, in the lion’s den, anywhere but near a telephone. That is to say, I found myself everywhere but where I actually was, and after several weeks of internal voyages made manifest through what I would call healthy reenactments but what she would call grand mal psychosis, Mary Jo told Mr. Henny with a most suspect innocence that she was enjoying working with Amelia Earhart and the Marquis de Sade. I can’t blame Mary Jo entirely; Mr. Henny had approached my cubicle on several occasions to find me comforting Holden Caulfield, or firing an AK-47 straight into bin Laden’s snot locker, or simply staring through the porthole of my spacecraft at the wildly spinning sphere of the Earth as it receded into history.

He made me take some time off, sent me to a shrink who told me that fantasies are okay, even good, if you can bend them to therapeutic advantage. “For instance,” she said, “the soap star fantasy indicates your drive for a new identity.” Maybe, I thought, maybe not. “Your forays into historical crises are desperate attempts to vicariously revise your own traumatic history,” she continued, “and the naked-at-work fantasy reveals low self-esteem, even self-loathing. We just have to figure out why you don’t like yourself.” But after weeks of batting around potential disorders—my desire to single-handedly exterminate bin Laden and to save the whales could be a savior complex, the whalers’ assault on my dinghy and my identification with Anne Frank could be a victim complex—I felt no closer to unearthing the source of my alleged self hatred and still recalled almost nothing about my childhood. And since it was a blank, the proverbial tabula rasa, I decided to fill it up with fantasies, one of which featured a new sister. Simply put, I was cured.

Even though my shrink was reluctant to end sessions before reaching some sort of breakthrough, before unraveling the mysteries of my strange and hyperactive psyche, she did tell Mr. Henny that I was fit to work; that is, I was not confusing fantasy and reality as Mary Jo had suspected and for which, as far as I can tell, she still has not forgiven me. For his part, Mr. Henny was thrilled, but when I returned to work Mary Jo seemed nervous, like she was expecting me to suddenly burst into song or to set the office ablaze.

I missed fantasizing, I admit it. But it wasn’t so much missing the fantasies as needing the fantasies, which had become a second nature response, almost as natural as breathing itself. Maybe my need increased when the shrink pointed it out to me, or maybe it was as strong all along. Either way, I succumbed to it, and shortly after June started working at M&B, I took a pulse. After all, I’d kept my reveries to myself for a month as I filed Abercrombie under A and Phitts under P alongside Mary Jo, who had grown much calmer, even throwing out a one-liner at Mr. Henny’s expense and telling several tremendously inoffensive jokes. If June thought it was all right and my shrink even sanctioned it as therapy, maybe the new and improved Mary Jo would finally see that fantasizing is an interesting, even curative pastime. So I tossed out the ball, June clumsily lobbed it back, but Mary Jo remained staunchly on the bench.

Now, as I sit in the lunchroom watching Mary Jo’s irises bore into the bridge of June’s aquiline nose, I know it’s over.

As we struggle into our coats that evening, June makes a feeble attempt to revive our diversion, something about Martha Stewart strafing Disney World from a B1 bomber. But I’ve lost her, as I am already en route to Lilliput, where I belong. I feel unhinged, beat down, six inches tall. I know what’s coming: Delia has left messages.

He’s waiting for me outside my apartment door when I get home—no, not the man from the mountain, the process server—with a subpoena. “Are you Katrina Downs?” he asks, and even though in a moment I become Catherine the Great, Attila the Hun, Groucho Marx, I simply say, “Yes.” He proffers me the severely creased sheet of paper, and there’s no need to imagine what it is.

*     *     *

The courtroom is stifling; I stare at the back of my father’s head as he sits beside his attorney, rigid and angry. Delia, on the other side of the room, is wearing a gray tweed business suit, and her hands flutter like birds as she whispers to her lawyer. She’s nervous. I try to go to Fiji, to Pluto, to the center of a molecule, but I am oddly rooted. When Delia says rape, sodomy, fellatio, I try for the World’s Fair, but she is suddenly curled around me on my small blue mattress, her panties wet against my back, her hands pulling, holding, clutching me, her sob-choked voice whispering Don’t worry, don’t worry, don’t worry

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