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If it hadn’t been for Mickey Mouse, I wouldn’t be alive.
That’s what my mother kept saying when I asked her about my father, and also when I complained about all those Disney characters traipsing through my life, too happy-go-lucky, too many smiles, little fairies by my bed and that endless array of dogs and mice and ducks and chipmunks but Mom would just repeat—it’s because of Mickey that you even exist, kid, so suck it up. And she’d point to the photo, The Photo, presiding over the mantelpiece.
I’ll tell you the whole story, Mom vowed, on your eighteenth birthday.
But Mom! I protested.
Eighteen. When you’re old enough to vote for the wrong people and go off to the wrong wars and drive a car without logging all those hours of driver’s ed, when you know a bit more about deception and theft and love. At the age when you start to discover that skepticism and suspicion are important in life, but having faith, that matters more. Faith, yes, and patience, my girl, not a bad thing to learn, your father was the most patient and persistent man I ever met. Well, one of the two most persistent and patient men I ever met.
She had gone up on that rollercoaster at Disneyland—the Matterhorn Bobsleds, she said—not really knowing what to expect. At least, that’s how she relayed the event at first, on that night of my eighteenth birthday, but then immediately doubled back on her own words and recommenced all over again so that something different could filter out, the revelation that she had indeed anticipated that Guy—though who knows if that was his real name, who knows if he wasn’t called Felix or Gabriel or something else, she never did find out—would pop the question right then and there. And he did, just as they were coming to rest after the scariest part of the ride, just as the camera took the picture, as he knew it would, as it always did if you warned the staff ahead of time that you were interested.
If she’d known that the photo was that important to him or guessed that it would drastically change the course of her life, she would have paid more attention to that request of his for a picture before they mounted the bobsled. But by then she had grown tired of speculating about when the proposal would come, she had thought he would pronounce those words of enchantment in a less agitated setting, Snow White’s Castle, maybe, or the closest thing to a Love Boat, the Storybook Land Canal ride, something with a slow tunnel first and then a clearing of sky and promise, and he would ask her to marry him, but no, all those attractions and entertainments and a snack at Daisy’s Diner, all had come and gone without a murmur from him. He had chosen to cast himself in the role of protector and what better opportunity than when her hand would be in his out of sheer necessity, waiting until the last perilous curve of the Matterhorn had been breathlessly bridged and the sled stopped, and only then turned to her and asked her what she knew he had been dying to ask since they had met at the hotel, he at the bar sorting out the last receipts and calculating the tips, and she cleaning up the mess on the floor on her first day of work. “I took my time,” he explained when they left the ride, “so I could be sure we had, you had, a photo of my proposal.”
Though not of her response because he suspected, and was right, that she would not immediately say yes, assumed she would cast her eyes down bashfully and thank him and tell him that she needed to think it over, even if her downcast eyes were already confessing what that answer would be, even if the way she kept her hand in his and even pressed a bit harder, was sealing the deal. The photo might or might not express her reaction—her face was half turned away from the click of the camera, she was listening to him intently, a wave of blonde hair was semi-obscuring her high cheek bones—but it would certainly capture his declaration of eternal love, his decision to have and to hold, until death do us part.
That’s what the photo was for. To be placed on the mantelpiece after their marriage, or next to their bed before they had consummated their love, or on the dashboard of the car he would rent for their short jaunt after the betrothal ceremony, something that would let her remember how sweet and innocent he had been at that instant and would always strive to be henceforth, till death did us part.
There was no photo.
“Where is it, our photo, what happened to it?”
Guy could barely keep his voice under control.
This was not in his plans. After the Matterhorn, he had carefully let some hours elapse before proceeding to the park exit and the display board where the photos of the day were posted for purchase, looking forward to the instant when she would see all over again his dark face captured in that flash of love, an impeccable occasion to reiterate his question, though somewhat modified, “Have you had time to think already? Do you need me to repeat what I said back there?” And, under pressure now from two Guys, one in the flesh and the other up there on view for her and the whole world to judge his best intentions, at that point, she would inch closer to a decision. And in the worst-case scenario she would always have the photo, carry it home to her tiny apartment, pin it up on the refrigerator or place it on the empty pillow next to hers, where some day he expected to pose his head. The photo guaranteed that the question would be advanced over and over until she would come up to him at the bar that night or the next night or whenever she was primed, and just whisper yes into his ear or maybe just say the words, forever and ever, or maybe, more dramatically, till death do us part—that was the worst-case scenario he had envisaged, that’s how sure he was of his powers of persuasion, what the photo would reveal and demand.
‘I took my time,’ he explained, ‘so I could be sure you had a photo of my proposal.’
There was an even worse case, of course, there always is. I certainly had discovered that by my eighteenth birthday, and Mom, orphaned at an early age and with several foster homes under her belt, had never let me forget it even when I had wanted to.
No matter how thoroughly Guy looked at the display board, and my mother looked along with him—two pairs of eyes are better than one, he said to her—even if he already had a sinking feeling—he admitted that to Mom later, as they headed for the night shift at the hotel—he managed to wink at her as a way of covering his disappointment. But he could not hide from her or from himself what it had meant to go over the hundreds of photos once and then a second time and neither of their explorations furnished anything that faintly resembled what he had in his head as a memory, what she had as well, Mom acknowledged on that eighteenth birthday of mine. There were plenty of other couples up on that wall, happy and less so, screaming toddlers on a leash and overly cheerful parents and Minnie Mouse signing autographs and a fat lady devouring a banana split bigger than the Matterhorn at the Golden Horseshoe in Frontierland, but not Guy and Carole, not the moment that he had already immortalized as the centerpiece of his strategy, nothing, not a hint or trace of his proposal, nothing at all.
Guy spent a few more anguished minutes scanning each shot—he was stubborn, Mom said, not going to give up that easily, and also he didn’t want to raise a ruckus, he preferred to go through life unobserved, not call attention to himself. “I always wanted to be a detective,” he had told Mom when they first met, “do my work quietly, you know, but I ran into some bad luck and settled on being an unobtrusive barman instead.” And in the case of the missing photo he didn’t want to make a scandal until he was absolutely sure that it was not in fact right there in front of them. That also would have spoilt his plans, for some underling to come up and inquire about time and place, the Matterhorn, five or so in the afternoon, and condescendingly point at the two of us up there, Mom said, at what was staring us in the face and what we had both overlooked several times. That would definitely have dampened his chances. I mean, he offers to protect me against evil, be loyal forever, and he can’t even find the damn photo with which he was supposed to woo me? So Guy systematically went over the whole array a third time, canceling out the shouts of glee or giggles of derision from so many fellow visitors who had their pictures snapped and could decide then and there whether to fork over the seven bucks and tote home one more souvenir along with their Captain Hook hats and their Pluto dolls and their Fairy Godmother wands.
Guy tried, Mom said, Guy told her later, he tried not to let this unforeseen hurdle sour his day, this day of all days that he wanted her to recall as pristine and perfect, so he nodded gallantly when the attendant directed them to an office near the entrance, where he could make inquiries, there were occasions when photos were blurred or retained for further scrutiny by management. Guy did not ask what right anyone in management or anywhere else had to retain and certainly not scrutinize his moment of glory, the photo he intended to show the children, two boys and one girl, he had even planned the sex of the babies that—she found this out much later, Mom said, on a more intimate occasion—he would extract from inside Carole’s lithe body once she blessed him with a yes. A future father doesn’t want to give the impression that he can’t take a little hitch into stride. So Guy sighed good-naturedly, suggested they go and retrieve the photo—stumbling blocks, he said, are character-forming, and maybe something from Shakespeare, the course of true love never did run smooth, even in the Magic Kingdom …
The man behind the desk, the manager, it turned out, smiled at us, Mom said, the sort of smile that’s automatic and mandatory at Disneyland, the same smile for each customer, client, guest, whatever they are called, he smiled at us as if he had never seen us before and would never see us again, a smile that nevertheless conveyed that we were still the most significant people on earth. Of course, he had, in fact, seen us, seen us in that photo just a few hours earlier. Not that he admitted this personal relationship that day, that first time we crossed paths. He probably did not know that, soon, I would indeed become the most significant person on earth for him.
So this man fell in love with you? But not yet, Mom, is that what you’re saying?
Mom nodded her head, while at the same time giving a shake of her hair that lent a certain ambiguity to her response: not yet. That was to come later, maybe just after we left his office, maybe when he saw the second photo of us the next day. He told me many weeks later that it was as soon as I walked through the door, but there were so many things he told me, so many things I believed when he told them to me.
The affable manager of that office—his name tag read Thomas Entenhausen—expounded at length on why the photo was not available. Before being posted for everyone to see, before any photo could be purchased, it was inspected by what he called his team, and he gestured to a door to his right, toward another room that Mom somehow imagined as vast and cavernously filled with men. No women, Mom?—no, I assumed women weren’t hired for that kind of job, but come to think of it there may have been women as well, Disney was an equal opportunity employer, and maybe they wanted a female touch once in a while, to make sure nothing unpleasant or awkward slipped into those pictures that men might neglect, find natural. Nothing obscene, basically, could be allowed to remain and in this case, the problem, the manager said, was that someone behind you on the ride, a kid in a customized Mickey Mouse hat, made a gesture that, well, is not appropriate for good society.
“What gesture?” Guy asked.
“Well, that’s the point,” Thomas Entenhausen responded. “It’s inappropriate to broadcast the specifics, certainly not in the presence of a lady. Let’s just say that it would be embarrassing, both for you and your”—and here he hesitated ever so slightly before choosing the right word—“friend. And for our company. We have a mandate to warrant that such images never be associated with Disneyland, not anything that little children couldn’t look at, take to school, show their pals.”
Guy clenched and unclenched his fist. “But if I had brought a camera or a friend had, and snapped the same shot you’re objecting to, then we’d have the photo with the kid in the Mickey Mouse hat doing something you refuse to define, I’d have it right now and get it developed and you wouldn’t know and, frankly, you wouldn’t care.”
“We wouldn’t know,” Thomas said, “that is true, but we most definitely do care, would care that such an image is circulating in the world outside the limits of our little global village. True also that there is nothing we can do to stop you and your friends from taking photos of all the obscene gestures in the universe, but we can make sure that any product that has our stamp of approval, the Disney logo on it, be as pristine and clean and unforgettable as we would like your experience to have been at our park. By the same token, if you were to use foul language and none of our employees heard you, or if you were to get drugged, or if you were to grope someone, or any number of other unbecoming acts, and did so without our knowledge, we could not hinder this sort of behavior, but if you were to do so within earshot or eyesight of one of our cast members, and we do have eyes and ears everywhere, believe me you would be ipso facto shown the door, told to pursue your grubby activities in the wide world beyond our gates. But not here, not inside the confines of the Magic Kingdom.”
Guy didn’t take the bait, if indeed the man was baiting him.
“Look, why don’t you just sell me the photo. I’m not going to send it to anyone or show it to anyone or publish it in tomorrow’s paper—hey, man, we just want it as a souvenir of a wonderful and yes, unforgettable day we’ve spent here. You wouldn’t want to ruin our day, would you?”
The manager smiled at us, the sort of smile that’s automatic and mandatory at Disneyland.
Thomas Entenhausen did not answer the last question, perhaps because by then, having already seen my mother directly, in person, and not only in a photo, perhaps by then he had decided that what he wanted was, actually, to ruin Guy’s day, to ruin Guy’s life. Thomas merely said: “Please trust me, this would not be a nice souvenir. To even look once at the lewd adolescent with the Mickey Mouse ears behind you in that photo, it would certainly soil your memory of the moment and, more crucially, soil your friend’s. Your experience here would be forever coupled to representations of ugliness and filth.”
“Just sell me the damn photo!”
“There’s no need for that kind of language, sir. No need to get adversarial. These rules, after all, are merely part and parcel of a policy that has the best interests of our guests in mind.”
“I’ll pay you double for it. Triple.”
“Even if I were willing to accept that sort of offer—and break my pledge to keep our image spotless—even if I would like to relieve your obvious distress, for which we do apologize, even so, I could not sell you the photo. It has been shredded.”
Guy asked that question, but so did I many years later. Why shredded, Mom? Couldn’t they just have erased or deleted the image digitally?
And my mother laughed at my historical naiveté: digital cameras were only starting back then. And even if there had been digital images, Thomas still would have given Guy the same answer.
“You don’t expect us to have kept that photo?” Thomas said. “As soon as one of our inspectors notices anything wrong, he sets it aside for a second opinion, and if that second opinion confirms what the first inspector saw in the objectionable material, the guilty photo is promptly eliminated.”
“But you have no right to do that,” Guy protested. “That was our photo. That was our moment.”
“It may have been your moment or not, sir, but it was not your photo. It belonged to us until we agreed to sell it. No such transaction has transpired. But here’s the good news. You get a free ride.”
Company policy stated that anyone whose photo had been shredded for reasons beyond their own control and/or responsibility would be admitted to the ride again without having to queue up or pay for it. It was the least the company could do to compensate for the loss of that photo. Give the aggrieved party a second chance. America was built on the idea that everyone should have a second chance, that’s what had made the country great. If the first time you don’t succeed, try again, with Walt Disney’s blessings.
Guy looked at Mom, uncertain how to proceed. Was she willing to go up with him again, up and up through the caves and lethal breaks of the Matterhorn, speed along those rails, risk the whiplash of the trip, would she react in the same way to the repetition of his proposal if on this occasion there was no surprise factor? And would the proposal be identical? Wasn’t it irrevocably damaged? Everything Guy had done that day had been leading up to that one culminating fantasy and there was no way of reiterating each detail, each ride, each laugh. This time Goofy would not ambush them as they wove a path to Tomorrowland, hug them both as if they were already married; this time they would not be accosted by two of the seven dwarfs escorting Snow White, all three cavorting around Guy and Carole; this time the bobsled might be filled with abominable people; some kid with or without Mickey ears might vomit on them as they rushed for the final stop; this time Guy might slur the words, or she might be wary and weary; this time … But Mom wasn’t going to let him down. She also wanted to avoid him seeing anything in her, all the foul luck in her past that might arouse second thoughts. She was not quite decided that he was the man for her, the right father for her children, but she did like him, liked him a bunch, and he had been so sweet with her, so patient with this obstinate manager.
“Sure,” Mom said, “let’s do it.” Thinking: nothing is ever free, not even a ride at Disneyland; you end up paying for every moment you think is free, but sure, why not give it a try? “But not now,” she said. “I have to work. And so do you. So …”
Thomas Entenhausen unearthed two passes from his desk drawer. “We have foreseen this possibility and, indeed, every possibility. We have imagined each eventuality ahead of time. I quote from our regulations: In case customers who have filed a complaint are unable to immediately retake the ride, management will provide as many One-Day One-Park Tickets as are required to allow them to pleasantly repeat and make right whatever went wrong. We look forward, therefore, to your presence as our guests tomorrow. And a piece of advice: if you come early, you can enjoy our Magic Morning experience.”
• • •
The experience the next morning was anything but magical.
Oh, they went up the Matterhorn again and Mom grabbed Guy’s hand in exactly the same sequence and, she hoped, with the same tenacity, as the day before, and he waited till the bobsled had jerked to a halt and only then turned to her and repeated the words that still clung to something fresh and chaste despite the threat of staleness in the air between them. She knew what he would say and he knew that she knew. It’s true that the first time, yesterday, they had also both conjectured what was in the offing, she had suspected what his intentions were, and he presumed that she was aware of what he felt and why he was bringing her on this date. But all that had been pure anticipation, their separate imaginations creating a shared space, a forecast of what their separate bodies might share and create inside his life and inside her body, a child like me, a girl like me and two boys, so that when Guy had popped her the question the day before it had been both inevitable and surprising, magnificent and ordinary, everything just right, whereas once the whole ritual had already been enacted, its replication and echo could never be as spontaneous and flawless as that original instance.
And yet, and yet—they did their best, she did not withdraw her hand, she turned to him with eyes that attempted to erase yesterday’s memory, he spoke to her with as much, if not more, fervor and sincerity, they did what they could to recapture the moment, they were both aware that a photo was being snapped that would carve this connection for all eternity, they were attracted to each other as much if not more than the previous day. They had been through this trouble, these minor trials, and if they needed to perform a bit, repeat each line of yesterday’s dress rehearsal, well, that was an adventure they were both willing and able to assume. They weren’t faking what they felt, after all, even if his words, her fingers pressing on his hand, were tinged with déjà vu, a slight cyclical fatigue, but no matter, no matter, the photo would not catch any of that, the photo was all that mattered, all that would be left of this day when she was so ready to say yes to him, almost said yes to him right away and then decided that it would be far better to let the events of today play out as they hadn’t yesterday, cooperate with his plans, suspend time and the bitterness of that first failure, eradicate from her mind and his any sense that something had gone wrong, be able to someday tell a daughter like me that they had then walked hand in hand along Main Street and watched the replica of Abraham Lincoln give his automaton speech and dawdled away the next few hours at the Café Orleans with its views of the majestic rivers of America and were serenaded by three supposedly drunken Pirates of the Caribbean and ate some crepes in the shape of Mickey Mouse’s ears—as if to say, that’s what we do with obstreperous kids who try to mess up our plans, take that, Mickey!—until Guy calculated that enough time had passed and the photo was sure to have been posted. He had no doubt that they would recognize it immediately and he’d buy it and slip it into one of her hands and take the other one and ask her if she would be his land, his country, his home, and everything would be just like it was supposed to have been yesterday, yesterday would have been rewritten, utterly expunged, everybody in America gets a second chance.
The photo was not there.
Thomas Entenhausen could not have been more apologetic. He had never confronted, he said, a situation like this one. “You two just seem to have accumulated all the adversity—it’s like the opposite of that Disney character, Gladstone Gander, who’s always so lucky, remember him? I confess that I never thought lightening could strike twice in the same place, so it’s difficult to explain this sort of calamity, because it turns out that in today’s photo there was—I hesitate to even articulate a description of such spitefulness, there was another gesture, even more crude and offensive than yesterday’s. Not the same person, this time it’s an older gentleman, though I shouldn’t call anyone a gentleman who does what he did, his pants unzipped, excusing my French, and I need venture no further, but he did, sir, he ventured much further while he leered at your friend in a way that is simply disgusting. He’s drooling and his eyes are rolling and—but let me stop here. Trust me, sir, you don’t want that photo near this beautiful lady or near anybody for that matter. I was on the lookout, I asked that as soon as your photo came in it be delivered to me—so I could expedite it, offer it to you for free inside one of our embossed Clarabelle the Cow envelopes, and congratulate you on having completed the Disney experience so felicitously instead of having to tell you how we regret this inconvenience. We are ready to offer you a third chance, in fact, two three-day promotional Park Hopper passes, for free, of course.”
Guy had let the manager go on and on. Guy, Mom said, was evidently confused by this turn of events, evidently wanted to give the man a good punch in the nose, but also wanted to appear calm and collected now that misfortune had struck again, on the one hand, impress Carole with his virility by drawing blood from their enemy and on the other impress her simultaneously with his serene ability to control himself. Guy had not interrupted the man once, had not released Carole’s hand, had not decided what course of action was required.
Until he said, quietly, or rather, in as quiet a voice as he could muster:
“I don’t want three-day promotional Park Hopper passes. I don’t want an autograph from Donald Duck. I don’t want dinner with Walt Disney or Roy Disney or Clarabelle the Cow. I want the photo, Mr. Entenhausen. I don’t care what the old gent is doing, don’t care if he’s exposing himself or mooning us. I’ll cut his image out, I’ll airbrush him out of existence, I’ll erase any and all traces of him from my photo and my life. Just hand me the photo, and we’ll call it quits and you won’t have to deal with me here tomorrow or the next day or ever again, as far as I’m concerned.”
Though Guy grasped by then that this new photo had also been shredded. More than that: he wondered whether the photo in question had ever been recorded or if there was such a dirty old gentleman mouthing indecencies and showing off his private parts; he sensed that there was more to this, there had to be more to this than met the eye. Because the manager would not, in fact, meet his eyes, would not look into Guy’s eyes, only had eyes for her, for Carole.
“You know, sir, that that’s not possible. Believe me, if I could—”
“I don’t believe you. I don’t believe a word you’re saying or have said. I don’t believe there are any such obscenities. I think you’ve made all this up.”
They were strong words, but Thomas Entenhausen did not react strongly. Did not ask Guy why he, the manager, would engage in such a dastardly and absurd plot. Thomas Entenhausen played his cards composedly, one after the other.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” he said. “But let me put your apprehensions to rest. Tell you what. Tomorrow you come early, really early. Before the Park opens. I will escort you to the ride, I will make sure nobody mounts the bobsled with you. There will be nobody but you two on the Matterhorn. As if you were really in Switzerland at the top of that mountain. And then I will snap the shot myself and you can come along with me and we’ll develop the photo in your presence and you can see that nobody has intervened, nobody is conspiring against you. We’ll beat this spell of bad luck, trust me. Together, the American way. And that photo, of course, will be free of charge. And you can still keep the three-day promotional Park Hopper passes.”
Guy turned to my mother.
This time, however, she nodded ambiguously with a shake of her wild hair, he saw that he was losing her, he had lost her. She did not unravel her fingers from his, but the fingers had grown cold, her palms had begun to sweat, the sparkle in her eyes had flattened out and that luscious mouth of hers was pressed hard, the teeth inside must be grinding. He did his best to abandon these thoughts, pretended to believe her when she said, “Of course. Early tomorrow sounds fine, I can make it if you can,” but the voice was the kind you hush through at funerals. She had expended all her energy in the recent reenactment of yesterday’s courtship, she was not ready to go through this ceremony one more time, Guy knew it and the manager knew it and she knew it. All three of them knew it, even as Guy accepted the passes and Carole smiled wanly at him and Thomas extended a card with his private number in case there was any problem, but what problem could there be, he’d be there, waiting for them, he’d accompany them to the ride, everything would turn out right, trust me.
Guy confirmed his intuition as they rode the shuttle in silence back to his car. And more so when she kissed him: she was kissing him goodbye, not for now, not for tonight, but forever. He hardly blanched when she did not turn up that night at the bar, called in sick, they said, when he asked, he knew it when she did not answer her phone, he wasn’t surprised when she did not appear the next morning and he waited and waited while the sun rose over California and Disneyland and the land of the free and the home of the brave, and exactly at noon he tore up the passes. Guy tore up the passes and put them back in the Clarabelle the Cow envelope and mailed them to her and repented as soon as he heard the mail box slot shoot back into place, as if it were a guillotine, a mistake that this should be his last message, a confirmation that he agreed with her unspoken assessment that their relationship was cursed, a mistake, a mistake, but there was nothing he could do.
• • •
Was there really nothing he could do?
That, at least, was what Mom thought. She thought it was over. She still remembered him fondly, but there could be no doubt that God did not want them together, a warning was being delivered. She had not heeded the first one but now there had been another one, unequivocal and explicit: this man is not meant for you. You’ve had enough rotten luck in your life, little lady, to hitch up to someone with this sort of karma.
She asked to be transferred to a different hotel and, because she was a model employee and didn’t mind all the worst shifts, her request was granted within hours—something that generally took several days, if not a week or more. Her supervisor gave her the good news: not only a swankier resort, but a raise in salary. Somebody up there likes you, he said, with a laugh like a horse’s, a sort of guffaw.
About time, Carole thought, wondered if she should go to Guy, find him and say goodbye, caress his hands or shoulders to see if her godsend rubbed off on him, but no, what was done was done, maybe she would meet someone else.
That someone else, of course, was Thomas Entenhausen.
He showed up at the bar of the new hotel a few nights later, was there, nursing a late drink when she arrived to do her cleanup work, start on the corners as soon as the last customers left.
She waited till their second date before asking him, in an offhand manner, about the photos, if it was true that they were so obscene and if it was true that they had been shredded; and he said yes, all of it, all of it true, both times, he said, incredible that lightening can strike twice, after all. But he waited till their fourth date to start elaborating, tendering her more details, and by then she had come to like him, his manners above all, his use of language, the deference with which he treated her, like a princess, better than Cinderella at the ball. By then she had come to dream of his delicate hands and the virginal smile he submitted to her which was nothing like the everyday Disney smile of fun and the-client-is-always-right and everybody-should-be-happy because death never comes, by then she was ready, just as she had been ready when the Matterhorn ride had come to its conclusion. This time she was ready to hear the story behind the photos, and it took several more dates and for them to go out dancing, and he was so respectful and even reverential, that she was the one who had to place his hand near her breast and then smack on it so he could feel the nipple bristling with desire, maybe this time she would get lucky.
At first, Thomas would only admit that when he saw the photo with the gesture, when it came to him for his okay before having it shredded—standard procedure, he said, I sign off on all these matters of moral hygiene, those were the very words he used, Mom said, moral hygiene—he was struck not by the finger that the adolescent with the Mickey Mouse hat behind them was flailing upwards in a fuck-you attitude (not that Thomas ever pronounced a word like fuck or anything approximating it), what riveted his attention, Thomas said, was less the teenage finger than the couple in the front seat, the dark adult face of the man in the front seat in thrall to a slender woman who seemed dashing despite her half hidden features. “That face,” Thomas said—“it was that lover’s face, as if there was something buried inside that man making a kind of proposal or offering, I noticed something that, digging deeper into those eyes, appeared to be far more obscene than the lascivious gesticulation of that hand from the back seat. And something else”—what Thomas confessed two nights later as they sat in his car, smoking and listening to the radio, boleros, love songs, her choice, not his—“something else,” Thomas said. “Not only was that vile man a wrong fit for the lady, whoever she might be, not only did he have an X-rated mind, but that man was going to die soon.”
He could tell, he knew these things, it was like a gift—a flashing pair of headlights from a passing car illuminated her face and he saw her eyebrows arch in puzzlement, puzzlement and pain.
Thomas said: “You don’t have to believe me; if we get to know each other better, you’ll see that I’m not lying. I just have that knack. I wish I didn’t, I wish I could go through life without knowing who will live long and who will die soon but that’s how it is, it may even be how I landed this job which is the best job in the world. I started working the gates when I was sixteen and I could spot the person who was going to give us trouble that day and after each of my warnings came sadly true, they promoted me, up and up I went, until I became head of security and now head of moral hygiene. Nothing escapes me,” Thomas said, “I can read people, and, trust me, this man was not good for you, whether he would live to one hundred and make your life miserable for many decades, or whether he would expire on your wedding night, he’s doomed, and if you stayed with him, accepted his vile proposal, you were doomed as well. That’s what I realized almost immediately and confirmed it when you both walked in through the door.”
And you believed him, Mom? I asked.
That’s what I asked him, Mom answered.
“Are you telling me that you separated us because you didn’t like my boyfriend’s face?”
“I have a strict code of honor,” Thomas said. “I never tell anyone what I perceive in the faces I examine, I don’t intervene in their lives. Even when I marked someone as dangerous at the entrance to the park, I wouldn’t refuse him or her admittance, just passed the information on to our surveillance team and they kept the person in question in their sights and at the first sign of misconduct, a joint rolled behind Dumbo’s ride, a bottom being fondled in Winnie the Pooh’s Hundred Acre Woods, they’d pounce on the suspect and that was that. And I became even more careful when I was put in charge of the photos. To intervene in the lives I was perusing, that would be as crass and nauseating as your former friend Guy is inside, as that teenage finger was sickening, as offensive as that old gentleman who interrupted your second photo session. Imagine what my life would be like, what Disneyland would be like, if an employee were to use the photos that pass through his hands to change the lives of customers, separate this couple, approve this other one, tell a wife that her husband is cheating on her, suggest to a child that she run away from home to escape her father’s abusive behavior. Notice that I am only informing you of these circumstances many months after the events, once you had decided on your own to ditch that man, and only because you have asked insistently. I did not change the course of your life. God did.”
‘Please trust me, this would not be a nice souvenir.’
Though later, as they grew closer, as Thomas discerned that he had to show how much and how deeply and how permanently he loved her, he began to unravel other particulars. Her image had stayed with him that first night, he could not deny it, burrowed into his mind, not only the one in the photo, but the aura that radiated from her body when she had walked into his office with Guy.
“I just couldn’t get rid of you, try as I might. So the next day, when the second photo came in, I was both despondent and, let me admit it, somewhat gleeful that fate had struck again. I knew that this would be Guy’s last attempt, that you would reject a third chance, two was enough, you had been through too much pain of your own, too many disasters, I could tell, to risk more of the same. And yet I was also sorry for you, because I realized how entranced you were by that man, how that yes had hovered on your lips, I shared your disappointment that those dreams had been foiled, you were a lost soul, as I was, harkening for company. And still, I did not intervene, I let things run their course, I let you come to the same conclusion I had come to instantly the day before: he was wrong for you. And I fought the temptation to contact you right away, I fought it but could not help myself from making sure you were okay. I was told—managers have all sorts of resources at their disposal—that you had changed hotels and I sent you a silent message: thatta girl, good for you, you wash that man right out of your hair. And when I came to check on you, I had no second or third or fourth intentions, trust me, just needed to witness how well or poorly you were taking that separation for which I was indirectly responsible. But as soon as I saw you, I couldn’t stop myself from saying hello, I couldn’t stop my mouth from proffering” (yes, Mom said, that’s how he spoke, that was the vocabulary he used, some of it rubbed off on me, he was a great storyteller, much better than Guy), “proffering an invitation to have dinner the next night, once my shift was over and before yours began, Carole.”
So he only approached you once Guy was out of the way?
Exactly what Thomas said. Mom scratched her head and looked at me, as if wondering how her baby girl had grown up so smart, could read people, even those she hadn’t met.
“I wasn’t taking you away from anybody,” Thomas told Mom. “I wasn’t beating my rival to death in an alley or besting him in an unfair competition—and he’s probably dead, poor man, by now—no, don’t even think of finding out, why depress yourself with such unhappy news? If you were to be mine,” and this was the first time Thomas had mentioned that possibility out loud, though both of them had considered it many times over, “it would be fair and square, I would connect with you as nobly as I could, now that the coast, so to speak, was clear.”
And yet, there was one further confession, one more proof of his love that she demanded, or rather that he proffered, yes, when she balked, several weeks later, at his marriage proposal. “How do I know you really love me? How do I know you would do anything for me? Didn’t you, even after you had seen that the man courting me was not a good fit, even after you had guessed—or so you say—that he was going to die all too soon and make me a widow before or after our wedding, didn’t you, even after you fell in love with me, the very night of that first day when I walked into your office with Guy to retrieve our photo, didn’t you, despite being infatuated with me, leave me to the wolves, leave me to my fate? What sort of man would do that? Guy wouldn’t, Guy would have fought to the end, he did fight to the end—he was just unlucky and I’d had enough of that, I didn’t need more of that in my life, trust me, to use your favorite words, Thomas. But you cared more for your code and your policy and your clean image in the mirror, you didn’t warn me, try and stop what, according to you, would have been a painful relationship and a ravaged life. How can I be sure that won’t happen again? That your love for me will not play second fiddle, be sacrificed for some moral hygiene in your life or your corporation’s life, how can I be sure that if our children are in trouble you won’t sit back and watch the blows rain down, not intervene, just step away. How can I ever marry anybody this aloof and detached? Somebody already married to Walt Disney.”
Strong stuff, Mom. You sure nailed him.
Mom wasn’t sure about that. Forced him, rather, to admit that she was right. Made him lay bare a secret, something that could get him fired, that could destroy his reputation if it ever got out, but that’s how much he loved her, that was a risk he was willing to take. She needed proof that he was equal to Guy—superior to him?
Well, at home that first night, the night of the first photo with the kid and his Mickey Mouse ears and his indecent finger, Thomas had been haunted by her twin images, he said, one in the shredded photo never again to be seen and another flaring from her flesh and bones and lovely skin and blazing blue eyes, also never again to be seen, because the next day she would get on that rollercoaster ride and it would swerve around curves and whoop up and down the Matterhorn and she would grab Guy’s hand and Guy would draw her closer and feel her warmth.
“And I wouldn’t,” said Thomas, “I would never ever feel that wonder glowing from your body, that heat was not destined to me, and then the ride would bump to its end and a photo would be snapped and there would, of course, not be an old gentleman flasher or anyone else behind you two exposing himself and drooling, such tribulations can happen once, but not twice in a row, not in this universe, not in Disneyland, not in the Magic Kingdom. And you and your beau would spend the next two hours having a magnificent time in the most perfect place in the planet, where for at least one day in each family’s life nothing goes wrong and everything is as it used to be in our country once upon a time, he would get you in the perfect mood to pull you slowly toward the display board. And up there would be that perfect photo and now there could only be one answer to his question, the one he had asked just after the second ride and also yesterday and that he was now going to ask again, with the photo in his hand as substantiation of his everlasting devotion.
“And you were going to say yes, I know how to read people, I know you had no alternative. You might have said no if the first photo had not been such a disaster, you would have been free to accept or reject his proposal, but once he made it right, once he had gone through the motions all over again and seduced you, if this time it all concluded without a snag, the way rides are always supposed to happily end in Disneyland, then this time you were truly doomed. And I had it in my hands to alter that fate, block you from marrying a man far more perverse than you can even imagine, that’s how innocent you are, no matter how many hardships you have endured. A man who would break your heart first by his perfidy and then break it again by dying, or maybe the fact that he would die soon was my only consolation, but not much comfort, because I knew that I could make you happy and he could not, and that I had the means at my disposal, I had to level the playing field, bend the rules a bit, for the good of all three of us. All three of us. I even thought of him, because when you stop someone from doing evil, you are doing him a favor, and what he was planning to do to you was not right, it would have hurt him as well as you, not to speak of me. So I was saving him as well as you, saving myself.”
Here, Mom said, Thomas paused, as you do before plunging into an icy pool when you’re not sure if your heart will survive the shock of water that is to come. A deep breath and his eyes were sorrowful and his eyes were like those of an angel, and he dove into what he had done, he dove into me as if I were his salvation, I would understand.
“That’s when I chose to do something I had never done before,” Thomas said, “but that I would be willing to do again if you require it in the future. I was remembering those Mickey Mouse ears that had brought you to me, that kid who fortuitously had interceded when I could not and sent you to my office and then I realized what God was demanding that I do. I called up an old man, an acquaintance, not exactly a friend. He used to be a cast member at our park—one of the best Mickey Mouses I have ever seen, flapping his white-gloved hands and rocking his head back and forth and jumping to the joy of children. I knew he had fallen on hard times and could use some extra cash and so I proposed to him—well, you can imagine what I proposed. So when you mounted that ride that second day, he was there behind you, he played his role to perfection, not Mickey Mouse but Dirty Old Man, he showed the camera what he was hiding inside his pants. He knew that I would shred the picture, that only I would see it, and what did he care, anyway, it was just a lark for him, something, he said, that he had always wanted to try while stifling inside the Mickey costume, suddenly jerk out his genitals and let them hang out in the immaculate air of Disneyland. I didn’t like that confession of his, that desire, but who was I to criticize him if I did like what would happen next, after he had exposed himself, I guaranteed that you would not marry Guy.
“So never say I didn’t care enough about you—hey, I had only caught a glimpse of you in the photo and then a mere five minutes of watching you mutely following our heated discussion, and yet I was ready to surrender my dignity and the dignity of Walt Disney, have someone who had donned the costume of Mickey Mouse, no less, sully the purity of my world. I lost something that night, Carole, and lost even more the next morning when I saw the photo, and it still burns inside me even if I shredded it after showing it to a select few subordinates so they would back me up in case Guy did something rash or stupid like try to sue us, insist that there had never been such an old gentleman, I lost something crucial in my life. My innocence, Carole, one might say, I lost that peace of mind, that trust Disney had placed in me to protect his image and our America, but I gained something more crucial: you. And if this revelation means that you refuse to marry someone who is far guiltier and more indecorous than the old man in the photo, well, I won’t blame you. But what you do for love, Carole, that cleans you forever. And I deserve a second chance.”
• • •
And Mom gave him that second chance. Just as she had done with Guy when she journeyed through the tunnels and sharp curves of the Matterhorn all over again so he could propose one more time. Mom said yes to Thomas, made his day, even if he had ruined Guy’s day and ruined the yes she owed Guy, even if he had intervened so Guy wouldn’t get a fair shake at that second chance, she said yes to Thomas because she thought she would never again find anyone in the world willing to sacrifice everything for her, she was sure she would not be given a third chance, just like Guy never had one, just like Thomas would not get one if he messed up.
She said yes, she would marry him, to have and to hold, forever and ever, till death do us part, she told Thomas Entenhausen she was ready to wed him.
And that’s how it would have ended up, Mom said, that’s how this story is supposed to end, except …
Except for Guy, I said to Mom, that day she told me the story of my birth.
Except that Guy had not given up, like Mom had thought, had not died, as Thomas had predicted.
Nothing prepared her for what she found on the two pillows on her bed, side by side. She came into the room the night before her marriage, less than twenty-four hours before she and Thomas were to tie the knot, she came in after a morning of shopping and an afternoon of packing and an evening of dining with the few friends she had—by then she had left her job at the hotel; Thomas had insisted that she never slave another day anywhere, she was his princess and he was prosperous enough for the two of them. Mom had come home and did not catch the whiff of a hint that anyone had been in the apartment she would no longer live in as of the next day, not a sign of forced entry—only those two photos on the pillows, one next to the other.
The first was just as Thomas had described it to them, to her and to Guy, and then to her alone with more detail, the adolescent’s finger could hardly be discerned, might even have been mistaken for some other gesture though Carole had to admit that a fuck-you expression was on that kid’s face. Who knows what had made him act that way, maybe it was his realization that a photo was being snapped, maybe he had his own troubles with some girl and decided to screw up the lives, or at least the picture, of the loving couple in the seat in front of his, maybe it was the Mickey Mouse ears that had led him into mischief and temptation, but she could understand why the slight obscenity would set off alarm bells, be spotted by one inspector and then confirmed by another and finally end up in the hands of someone like Thomas Entenhausen, someone who would order it shredded for the good of Disney and the general innocence of the world.
Though Mom did not discern in Guy’s face what Thomas had discovered there, certainly not a possible death looming in the near future. But she had not been very good at discerning such potential fatalities near her, had not received the slightest indication that remote afternoon when she had said goodbye to her parents and her two brothers that she would never see them again, not even in the morgue, not even at the funeral home. No future bereavement, therefore, inscribed in Guy’s face, but also nothing sinister or even tenuously evil in him either. Though she also had to admit that she was even worse at reading faces for hidden intentions than she was at seeing future grief and doom in them, because she had seen nothing, all these months, to suggest the perversity of Thomas.
The perversity of Thomas: he had not only kept that first photo, had not shredded it, must have concealed it in his clothes, had it in his pocket at the very time he was denying its existence to Guy and Carole, and then, having secluded it, probably had masturbated over it that very night, who knows what he had done that very night, except for one thing that was sure. He had not called up the former employee who used to be a cast member playing the role of Mickey Mouse, he had not asked him or anyone else to heave out his genitals at the end of the Matterhorn ride, Thomas had not intervened in the taking of that photo—that would have left some sort of trail, an accomplice, someone who could point an accusatory finger at the manager one cloudy day. Why risk contaminating the moral hygiene of Disneyland he had sworn to uphold, why betray his employer and his own dedication to a job that he called the best in the world, when there was a far simpler solution, more expedient and unthreatening?
Why risk contaminating the moral hygiene of Disneyland when there was a far simpler solution?
All he had to do was invent the old gentleman and his lewd behavior, all Thomas had to do was project onto the photo his own lewd thoughts, his own desire to unzipper his pants and parachute into that love life, insert himself and his own genitals into the core and middle and center of that relationship, what he was doing anyway. All Thomas had to do was inspect the pristine photo himself when it came in and deem it unworthy of carrying the Disney logo and withdraw it from circulation. So that when Guy and Carole walked into the room a few hours later, he could tell them that the photo had been eliminated, alas, that there was nothing he could do but offer a third chance, and if by some miracle this woman he had fallen in love with decided to go along and give Guy yet one more bang at this marriage thing, well, there was Thomas the guardian, Thomas at the gates, Thomas standing by to devise yet some other reason, he’d think of something. There would be no film in the camera, or when the picture was snapped the lens would be covered, or he would swing it slightly so that instead of Guy asking Carole to marry him a twisted angle of the Matterhorn’s dark cavern would materialize, a strand of hair in the wind, one of the attendants oiling the tracks, Thomas could intrude on that country called Guy, invade that country called Carole, he would not let her make the mistake of marrying the wrong man.
Even if Mom was convinced now that there was nothing wrong with Guy. Mom looked carefully again at the second picture. There he was, even more endearing than in the first one, a bit more desperate and determined, but the love burnt even brighter in his eyes because that fire was being returned by her, her face could be seen fully in this second photo. Because, aware that the first time she had half turned toward him, and somehow blaming herself for not being completely there for Guy, at least not in the picture with which he so wished to cement their future, she had corrected her pose and composed her face, she had learned from the first botched attempt, so that second photo was absolutely faultless, something any woman would set on her mantelpiece, be proud to show her children, cherish forever, to have and to hold, till death do us part. Which may have been why Thomas had kept it. Because if he did fail to cajole her, if his plans failed and she ended up in the arms of Guy, or if she rejected both Guy and him, then he at least had her image for his lonely nights, he could always fantasize that the yes shining inside that woman was meant for him, he had done all he could to have and to hold her.
And the first one? Why had he kept the first one?
Mom never found out. She supposed it was superstition, she supposed Thomas feared to truly shred either of the photos that had led to such a textbook outcome, just as murderers hide the crime weapon in a place that they can dig up from time to time to revisit the thrill of having been undiscovered, to celebrate their total impunity. And yet, even then, even at that moment, confronted by the evidence of such malevolence, Mom could not help but feel somewhat sinfully pleased that this man should have been so enchanted by her that he would stoop to such viciousness; it was definite proof of his love. Definite proof that she could not marry him. Definite proof that she had to find Guy and make amends.
It was then, Mom said, that the phone rang.
As if Guy had calculated how long it would take her to reach the bedroom and pick up the photos and examine them carefully and draw the conclusions, he planned his call with as much deliberation and care as he had invested in the first and then the second Matterhorn rides, as he had spent in the following months preparing to reconquer his lost love. He had obviously been stalking her in some way, in some way learning from Thomas how to be devious and ruthless, watching her from afar, all this time, using all the detection skills he had accumulated as a child before fate had wanted him to be a barman, watching her tonight arrive at her apartment and then dialing her number when he was sure she would be ready, as ready as she had been after each of the rides had ended.
She picked up the receiver. Her hand was quivering, but when she heard his voice: “Meet me at the Paradise Pier Hotel, take the back exit because that man may have you under surveillance, come straight up to suite 333 without passing by the front desk or asking anyone for directions, make sure nobody sees you,” when she heard his deep, urgent voice, her answer was not hesitant or troubled.
“Yes,” Mom said. Only that word she had saved for him, had been unable to give him after the first ride or at the viewing of the first missing photo, unwilling to give him after the second ride so as not to spoil his day and let it spool out as he had planned, and then had not given him when the next photo had also been missing and finally had kept undelivered when it was clear that only a third chance could save their love and she had not been wise enough to persist because she had been so plagued with bad luck since childhood that it seemed too much of a risk. She gave him that yes, the first one of their lives, and did not add yet until death do us part, that could come at the ceremony.
Until death do us part.
She rued having thought it, was glad she never said it, comforted in the years ahead that she had only offered him that yes.
A yes that was repeated several times that night as they made love listening to the Pacific under their balcony, a yes that he accepted after he had told her in detail how he had decided to fight for her, how he had kept his night position as a barman at the Disney Hotel but had added during the day a different job, as a cast member, had ended up putting on the Mickey Mouse costume that had belonged—or maybe that was also an invention?—to the old gentleman who had, naturally, never boarded the Matterhorn bobsled, never exhibited his genitals for the camera. It was somehow fitting, Mom mused, that Thomas was being undone by the Mouse whose name he had invoked in vain, that in the guise of Mickey, Guy had free rein and range at the Magic Kingdom, could walk through the streets and wander into the offices unheeded, almost part of the landscape. Fitting that the Mickey ears of the adolescent who had unwittingly separated them were now being used to pick up clues, follow the trail, defeat the bandits. Guy had finally become a detective just like Mickey in the old comics he had read as a boy.
Guy didn’t explain much about his technique, how he had managed to finally lay his hands on the code to the administrative center where Thomas Entenhausen worked and how, only last night, with the wedding impending like a dark storm, he had been able to sneak in when everybody had gone home. What Mom deduced was that Guy had opened the drawer to that man’s desk. And there were the two photos, just as he had suspected, definite verification of what he had known in his heart of hearts. Guy did not give many details because he assumed there would be ample time in the future to fill her in, time galore while he filled her life, while he filled her with himself, while she filled him into herself, more than enough hours and hours to explain what his plan would have been if no photos had been hidden in that desk, clarify perhaps that he had also procured keys or other access to Thomas Entenhausen’s apartment, or what he would have done if his rival had indeed shredded the photo or if the second photo did indeed reveal the old gentleman showing his stuff. Guy expected to have many years to tell her and tell the children the story of their origin, this tale of true love.
In this, Guy was wrong. And in this, unfortunately, Thomas knew whereof he spoke when he had predicted a short life for Guy. He had not been lying when he told her he was an expert in death.
Carole awoke just before dawn, ravished and blissful and ready for many another yes in her life, and that sensation lasted barely a second, because the limbs that were entwined on her torso were cold and heavy and unresponsive.
On that eighteenth birthday of mine Mom did not elaborate, and has never wanted to elaborate since, on what had happened next, how long it had taken her to come up with a plan. Nobody had seen her arrive, she was sure of that, and she knew that hotel well enough to find a way out without anybody noticing her. She let herself be guided, I think, by Guy’s voice still whispering in her ear, still gently guiding her, what was best for her now that death had indeed parted them, what was best for the child that she felt already growing inside. She refused to accept that nothing of Guy would remain with her except for those two photos.
This much is certain: she made her way to her apartment, smuggled herself in the back way, and prepared for her wedding day as if she had not just had her true wedding night.
If there was to be a child, Carole would need some security.
Did she intend to marry Thomas and then kill him and then inherit, was that her plan?
I was unwilling to ask her and Mom was not foolish enough to tell me if I had asked.
Thomas died that night, Mom said, that was as much as I ever got from her. A heart attack. He never saw it coming. Once, she said, at least this once, he never saw it coming.
But you had that night with him, I asked. So he could be my father?
No, Mom said, he was a liar and a cheat and a thief. But he was always a gentleman. He never touched me. He died before anything happened between us. I looked at his naked dead body and I thought: well, what do you know? Lightning does strike twice.
There’s your father.
And she pointed to the photo, The Photo, on the mantelpiece. I had stared at it ever since I could remember, before I could remember, and there had never been a connection, a spark, a flow, and now was no different. I could still see no resemblance between us, between the man she called Guy and the girl who was supposed to be his daughter, still nothing familiar. Maybe I had tried too hard during all these years to prepare for the moment of our reunion, tried so hard that when it finally came, I had already used it up, spent it away, like a river smoothing a stone until there are no rough edges left, no memories but of the river passing.
I had decided way ahead of time how I would feel when the story of my birth was revealed to me: full, realized, complete, whole, purified, you name it, a tear of recognition would roll down my cheek. Like in the movies. But nothing came, nothing happened. Instead I found myself wondering about Thomas, how he had looked, strange that Mom hadn’t kept a photo of him somewhere. Or maybe she had it buried away, one more secret she would spring on me on some distant birthday or the day I was married or had my first child. It was useless to ask. I couldn’t know, after all, if there was any truth in what she had just told me, if she had not been nurturing this story all these years to cover for some other sort of tragedy. Who knows if Thomas had even existed, if that man in the picture had not sworn eternal love and then abandoned her or died in an accident like her parents had. But that story of tenderness and passion and redemption was the story she wanted me to tell my children, if I ever have kids, that is, she wanted me to tell them that they exist, as I do, because of Mickey Mouse.
And then they’ll ask me, just as I did, about the other photo.
What about the other photo, Mom?
She paused, perhaps unsure of where I was going with the question, perhaps merely unsure of her possible response, preferring to buy herself time. Finally, she ventured, cautiously, tentatively: What photo?
The first photo, Mom. The one with the obnoxious kid.
My mother smiled. Oh, that one, she said, no longer hesitating. She had burned it that same day. She dressed for the wedding, she said, and then grabbed a match and lit that photo up and watched it consumed by flames and flushed it down the toilet, that’s what she claimed.
I was trembling, trying to hide my bewilderment. How could she have burned the one piece of evidence that would have proved she was telling me the truth? But I didn’t ask her, didn’t dare ask her, voice my mistrust. It was her life to live and to tell and who was I to doubt it, how could I do that to her?
She answered me anyway.
That kid shouldn’t be part of the family memories, she said. He was an accident. The photo I wanted to keep, show you, my dear, have you show your children, was this one. Nobody but Guy and me, him and me, both looking into the camera and into the future, looking at you in our future, the photo that Thomas couldn’t stop from reaching my hands, from reaching your hands.
Only this one? That’s all that’s left?
Only this one, Mom said. Or don’t you believe me?
Yes, Mom, of course I do, I said, swallowing hard, staring straight into the quiet and jubilant eyes of the man called Guy, speaking to him as much as to her. Of course I believe you.
And then, and only then, did I start to cry.
Photograph: Justin Brown
Argentine-Chilean novelist, playwright, essayist, academic, and human rights activist, Walter Hines Page Research Professor of Literature and Latin American Studies at Duke University, is author of many books, most recently Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile.
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