ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"Petite Suite des Congés," by Robert Wexelblatt


1. Le Rideau de Fer - Allegretto Bohème

            Nobody wanted to go to Prague.  There were just two passenger cars, old ones, without compartments, and only two other people in Kehlman's.  On the left, a grandmother dozed beside three large packages covered in what looked like oilcloth.  On the right sat a bald, fortyish man in an ugly brown suit.  He laid his fedora on the seat beside him, took a sheaf of papers from his briefcase and began examining them.  Kehlman pegged him for a lawyer.  He imagined that somebody had died and he had to go to the other side to settle the complicated estate, property left over from the Austro-Hungarian era.  As for the grandmother, Kehlman guessed she was taking new clothes, diapers, and toilet paper to relatives where such goods were unavailable.

            One train a day ran from Vienna to Prague.  It left at 4:30 in the afternoon which Kehlman thought odd.  Why not in the morning?  He had no idea how long the trip took but it was obvious he'd be arriving at night.  Meanwhile, he had most of a day to kill.  The weather was overcast and humid but not oppressively warm.  He had walked around the inner city aimlessly, seeing what presented itself.  He stopped for lunch at an inviting restaurant and ordered schnitzel.  By sheer chance, he noticed a blue plaque affixed to the wall by the entrance of the small hotel across the street and, after paying his bill, he went to examine it.  The plaque declared that this was the hotel where Franz Kafka and his friend Max Brod had regularly stayed when visiting the capital.  It was because of Kafka that Kehlman was going to visit Prague.  Months earlier, he had applied to the Czech embassy in Washington for his three-day visa.

            Vienna was fine, though, to Kehlman's eye, it looked like one big, weary museum.  He was more interested in Prague.  And why not?   Going to Prague was his chance to see what was on the other side, how much of what he'd been told was true.  Prague was also the only place he had to be at a set time; otherwise, his ten-week European sojourn was unstructured.  He had landed in London, then gone to Paris, Madrid, Nice, Genoa, Rome, Florence, and now Vienna.  Because he was traveling alone he had met many interesting people, especially on trains.  He was glad of his Eurail pass; night trains saved him the cost of lodging.  Europeans were apparently unused to encountering young Americans traveling alone, without a camera or white socks.  Most refused to believe him until he produced his passport.  Each time he took out that little blue book Kehlman was reminded of movies in which stern men in scary uniforms demanded to see travelers' papers.

            Europe appeared to be infested with young Americans.  Kehlman met a lot of them and they weren't very interesting.  Their conversations were limited to where they'd been and where they were going next, and that's what they wanted to know from him.  "Prague?  Why would you want to go there?  Everybody says the action's in Budapest."  It took him a while to figure out that the continent wasn't really overrun by twenty-something Americans but that all of them carried copies of Europe On Five Dollars a Day.  It wasn't surprising that they ran into one another in the same Arthur-Frommer-endorsed cafeterias, hotels, and hostels.  In one of the latter, Kehlman met a Californian who'd been to Prague.  The fellow was a pothead but he did have two pieces of useful information.  The first was, "Strange place, man.  Ano means yes."  The second was that, at the border you had to buy Czech money at an inflated rate.  "You can get twice as much on any street corner in Prague, so buy the minimum."

            The Austrians hadn't put a lot of money into their little building at the frontier, a utilitarian blockhouse made of cement.  The Czechs, however, had built a lovely little depot of red brick that reminded Kehlman of the little village his childhood pal Charlie Gable built around his Lionel trains.  It had a tidy green lawn and a yellow-tiled roof.  The four window boxes were crammed with geraniums, all blooming like happy Communists.

            After the train wheezed its way over to the Czech side, a young woman got on.  She was dressed in a smartly tailored green uniform, complete with peaked cap and a leather bag on a shoulder strap.  Sergeant Pepper had been out less than a year.  Lovely Rita, Kehlman thought.  He'd been expecting two or three suspicious commissars with side arms.  But here was this smiling, apple-cheeked brunette, a radiant knockout.  If the regime's object was to make a good first impression on decadent Westerners, it worked.

            The grandmother knew the drill.  She had her passport out and her cash ready.  Same for the lawyer.  Rita was still smiling when she took Kehlman's passport and checked his visa, pre-stamped in Washington, D.C. 

            "Ah, America."  Her smile went up several watts.

            Kehlman nodded and said, "Yes.  I see you've heard of the place."

            Her smile didn't change; she didn't quite get the joke.

            "You must buy some money," she said, businesslike, "koruna."  Her accent was charming. Kehlman thought it funny that a Communist state would call its money "crowns," but he didn't venture another joke.  "Sixteen hundred is the required sum but you can buy as much as you like.  Sixteen hundred is one hundred dollars American."

            "Are all the women in Czechoslovakia beautiful?"

            Rita blushed and stood up straighter in an unsuccessful attempt to look more military.

            Kehlman got out his travelers' checks.  "Do you live here, at the border?"

            "In Prague," she said, "when I'm not on duty."

            "I'm going to Prague.  When do you go off duty?"

            She looked at him anxiously.  "Tomorrow."

            They quickly arranged to meet.  She suggested a workers' café just off Good King Wenceslas Square.  She glanced over her shoulder, whispered the address, marched the length of the car, and was gone.

            Unsure where to get off, Kehlman stayed on the train until the end of the line, picked up his knapsack and climbed down to the platform.  He found himself at one a.m. in a vast, harshly lit station.  It was crowded; many people were sleeping on the benches.  There were gaggles of very young, decidedly unfrightening soldiers.  They had no guns.  Kehlman figured they were either coming from or on their way to summer training.  They were like a junior high school class on a field trip.

            It had been a long time since he'd eaten the schnitzel.  Kehlman was famished.  He wandered around until he happened on a cavernous restaurant.  He found a seat at one of the big, round tables and accosted one of the waiters who were running back and forth delivering plates of food and beer.  The waiter didn't speak English.  Apart from Ano and koruna, Kehlman didn't speak Czech.  He pointed at what was on the man's tray.


            Kehlman knew goulash.  "Ano," he said.  "And beer."  Except for Spain, beer had been the same in every language.

            He found an exit.  There were trams, useless to him, then he found a taxi queue. It was quite short and he soon found himself in the rear of a tiny Skoda.  "Hotel?" he ventured.  The driver spoke some English.  "American?"  "Ano."  This seemed to delight the driver.  He explained that he had to take Kehlman to one of the big tourist hotels.  "Required.  For foreigners," he said.  "Bugged.  Too much koruna. I know one is full, then I'll take you someplace not so bugged, cheaper." 

            Kehlman was received hospitably by the manageress, a middle-aged woman who also must have been a knockout a decade or two earlier.  She spoke English pretty well and explained that an American was a rarity.  "Perhaps you will marry my daughter and take her to Hollywood," she said quite seriously.  "She is very pretty.  Only fifteen." 

            In the morning, Kehlman found the café which turned out to be a cafeteria.  He took a tray and, because he couldn't order anything else, asked for goulash.  The plump woman behind the counter asked him something and Kehlman said, "Ano."  So there were dumplings in the goulash.

            He visited the old Jewish cemetery.  He joined about six other people, all old couples.

            There was a guide, an old man in a blue jacket.  He explained that, owing to the scarcity of land inside the ghetto, they were standing on seven layers of corpses.  The big draw was the tomb of Rabbi Loew, putative creator of the alleged Golem.  In the afternoon, after more goulash and beer at the café, he asked directions, guessed at the answers, and found his way to the New Jewish Cemetery.  It was at the end of a tram line beyond the brutal blocks of a socialist suburb.  The place was neglected, overgrown, more like a forest than a graveyard.  Its iron gates hung precariously from rusty hinges. There was a caretaker's hut but no caretaker.  A small white sign near the entrance gave the coordinates of the grave of "Dr. Franz Kafka."  Kehlman walked into the forest, counted the rows, put a stone on the tombstone and sat down for half an hour.

            The next morning, as Kehlman sat in the lobby of his hotel looking at brochures, the manageress ordered her daughter to go over to the American and offer him a pack of Pall Malls.  The girl was dressed in a Young Pioneers uniform and kept her distance, looking at him as if he were the devil and deviltry was contagious.  Pall Malls must have been frightfully expensive.  At noon, he met Rita at the café, as they'd arranged.  She was waiting for him.  She looked very nice in a red sundress, but he missed the uniform.

            Her name was actually Milena, like Kafka's heroic translator, correspondent, girlfriend, and martyr.  But unlike Milena Jesenska, she wasn't married to anybody.  He spent as much time as he could with her.  One of the brochures had advertised a place called the Laterna Magika.  He took her to the matinee, a spectacular multimedia version of The Tales of Hoffmann.  Afterwards, Milena showed him the Street of the Alchemists and took him up to visit Prague Castle.  Then she said she had to go home.  The next day they went to the Sedlec Ossuary, also known as the Church of Bones, a morbid masterpiece.  Then they walked to the river and he saw the famous Charles Bridge.  They ate street food—sausages and mustard.  He only had one more day but she said she had promised to cook dinner for her parents.  He insisted that she come to dinner with him on his last night and she agreed. 

            "Where shall we go?"

            "Leave that to me."

            Kehlman took her to the hotel for foreigners, the one that had been conveniently full.  According to the brochure, its restaurant had four stars, though he didn't say from whom.  But the restaurant was Old World elegant, the service almost oppressively attentive.  Hardly anyone was in the dining room, so they each had their own waiter.  Best of all, the menu was in French.  Despite all this, by Western standards, everything was cheap.

            "Order everything you want, Milena" he said.  "I haven't come close to using up all those crowns you sold me."  He liked saying her name.

            Kehlman learned that, even though she got on well with her parents and loved her country, Milena wanted out.  And so, she said, did most of her friends.

            "Dubcek is great guy but the Russians won't stand for him.  We're all captives here.  Did you know that Prague is more west than Vienna?" 

            Milena wanted the West.  She wanted Levis jeans, rock music, uncensored books, fashion magazines; she wanted a place without secret police and their informers, one where people didn't cringe when they heard the sound of Russian or, better still, a place where you didn't hear any Russian at all.

            They made a plan.  She gave him her border duty schedule.  Kehlman would go to another Czech embassy and get another visa stamped into his passport.  He would take the train from Vienna when she was on duty.  He would take a seat at the back of the last car.  When she came to him, they'd leap out of the back and dash across the border before the Czech guards could react.

            This sounded good to Milena.  She nodded.  "They're dirty and they drink slivovitz and say indecent things.  Also, they are—what's the word?—yes, they are lazy."

            "Then I'll fly you to America and we'll get married and you'll become an American.  Would you like that, to be an American?"

            "Maybe," she said pertly. Then she laughed and said what Kehlman was sure was "Ano." 

            It was too risky to send Milena a letter, let alone make a phone call, so Kehlman said he'd send her a post card with the day of his trip encoded.

            "Secret message.  I'll say it's my birthday."

            "Then I'll be your birthday present," said Milena sweetly and wrote down her address.

            The next morning, he had to leave.  Kehlman took the train from Prague to Munich, visited Dachau, was disgusted, then took a night train to Copenhagen.  Here he found the Czech embassy and talked his way into another visa.  At a nearby kiosk he chose a post card of the Little Mermaid and wrote that he was having a great time and that he'd be celebrating his birthday on August 21.  After going to the post office to mail the card to his own little mermaid, he took a guided tour of the spick and span Carlsburg brewery.

            On August 20, Kehlman was cooling his heels in Vienna when half a million Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia.  There was a spirited non-violent resistance but the outcome was inevitable.  As the tanks poured in from the north and east, thousands of young Czechs fled south and west.

            August 21 was a rainy day.  Kehlman waited around in his hotel, reading, then boarded the 4:30 train for Prague. There were only two passengers this time, himself and another grandmother.  This one looked frightened; Kehlman was anxious too.  At the frontier, an unhappy Austrian official climbed on and declared in German and French that he regretted to say that the Czech border was now sealed and consequently the train would be returning to Vienna.

            Kehlman never saw Milena again. He pictured his Lovely Rita's flight, the exuberant crossing of the border, the southern one or the western one.  He imagined her in a crowd of young people full of dreams and hopes and tried to guess where she would have gone, what she might have done once she got there.  She would head for a city, a capital.  No small towns for her, nothing rural.  He couldn't see her in Berlin or Zurich; Stockholm seemed wrong too, even London.  He decided to think of her in Paris, a transfigured little mermaid fresh from murky eastern waters.  She'd become a model for Yves St. Laurent or the rejuvenating muse of an aging Nouvelle Vague director.  You chose Paris, didn't you, Milena?  Definitely Paris, right? 




2. La Division du Travail ou Une Guerre D'Opium – Yayue Vengeur

            The collapse of a distinguished career seldom begins with a public triumph. In this case, the apotheosis occurred in the Grand Hall of New York University.

            George Peale MacFarland was generally acknowledged to be among the top American scholars of contemporary China.  He could boast (and sometimes did) of being asked to consult with the government on three occasions.  He had delivered a dozen keynote addresses at international conferences.  He had been on television, appearing five times on The News Hour where he came across as urbane, confident, and capable of explaining complicated issues succinctly without being simplistic.  MacFarland could tell you exactly how many articles and reviews he had published and where.  He was esteemed an ornament of his university, a full professor who never had to cope with undergraduates.

            The Sino-American Society's Prize for Distinguished Scholarship was awarded for MacFarland's translations of articles by the Three Gorges protestor Dai Qing and his big book on the ecological movement in China, published by Yale University Press.  MacFarland knew everybody in his field but also had many friends in government and the press.  As a result, the Grand Hall accommodated an unusually large crowd for such an event.  In his acceptance speech, Professor MacFarland thanked a number of other scholars, his publisher and editor, and also one of his current graduate students, Barbara Chang.  He did not mention his wife.  In fact, apart from dedicating his first book to her, MacFarland never publicly thanked his wife Susan, née Siying Wu, for anything at all.           

            The couple had met when, as a doctoral candidate, MacFarland traveled to Taiwan to conduct research.  People thought of Susan, when they thought of her at all, as a quiet, even submissive woman, proud of her husband, an efficient hostess and good housekeeper.  One of MacFarland's colleagues described Susan rather enviously as "an old-fashioned Confucian wife," one who exemplified the precepts of the first-century female philosopher, Ban Zhao:  Let a woman modestly yield to others; let her respect others; let her put others first, herself last.  The couple had no children.  MacFarland liked to say his books were his kids, all twelve of them.

            Barbara Chang was pleased when her advisor arranged her invitation to attend the SAS ceremony; she wasn't even bowled over when he gave her the round-trip ticket to New York.  She was delighted when he introduced her to the famous attendees, men whose names she thought of as books; but she was surprised to be thanked in his speech.  The acknowledgment would certainly help her career prospects, but she had contributed nothing to the work on Dai Qing.  Her thesis was on the Cultural Revolution, with a special focus on the daughter of Lin Biao, Lin Liheng.  On the other hand, as she was sleeping with MacFarland, she figured the invitation to the ceremony, the ticket, the introductions, and the acknowledgment must be her reward.

            Susan/Siying knew about her husband's affairs, always with young Asian graduate students, like Barbara Chang.  But never before had he been so indiscreet as to make a dalliance public.  Even that she might have tolerated, but he had given this girl undeserved thanks.  Ban Zhao's advice notwithstanding, it was an insupportable shock.  It was, in effect, a breach of the tacit contract she had with her husband.

            MacFarland's linguistic abilities were limited.  Without the help she had given him in Taiwan, he would never have completed his thesis, which became his first book and won him his first job.  That was only the beginning.  Siying had done all the translations of Dai Qing's articles and wrote over half of the prize-winning book as well.  The same was more or less true of McFarland's other books, except for the five she had written entirely on her own.

            The MacFarlands returned to Michigan two days after the award ceremony.  The following day, Susan, who henceforth called herself Siying Wu MacFarland, entered the Chase Bank on Main Street, withdrew half the money in their joint account, and removed a fair portion of the contents of their safety deposit box.  That afternoon she moved out of the big house in Ann Arbor.  Instead of a note, she left her husband some pointed verses by the Sui poet Chen Hsi-wei, smiling at the thought that George would have difficulty reading them.  She packed two suitcases with clothing and papers to supplement the evidentiary data on her laptop and two memory sticks.  She booked a suite in the Detroit Marriott and called an Uber.  The following day, Siying established a Facebook account and posted an article under the title China Rising.  In it, she delivered a brisk but detailed summary of all her contributions to her husband's work.  To this she appended a list of fifteen distinguished East Asia scholars from both Britain and the United States whose Chinese, Korean, and Japanese wives had done much the same for their husbands as she had for hers. 

            A day later, her interview with the Detroit Free Press was published after which the scandal spread with breathtaking speed.



3. Toutes Choses Étant Égales – Scherzo Dialectique

            Peter Luger's was frequented mostly by businessmen, many of them foreign, brought by their American hosts to seal deals and eat steaks. 

            At a corner table a cackle of investment bankers was celebrating a financial coup or one of them making partner.  Luger's subdued lighting did nothing to dampen their eruptions of alcohol-boosted cheers and laughter.

            "All that expense-account testosterone," remarked Cynthia Strickstarr.

            "For the young 'uns maybe," Warren Atheny observed.  "Just imagine the per capita annual consumption of Viagra at Goldman-Sachs."

             "You could do a survey right here.  Go table to table with a clipboard."

            Cynthia took a good slug of the good Shiraz.  "You're looking wickedly speculative.  A penny for your thoughts."

            Atheny had ordered a plate of Luger's superb lamb chops to share as an appetizer, then it was the prime rib for him and a porterhouse for her, huge portions served on hubcap-sized plates.  They were still polishing off the meal.  They met at Peter Luger's fairly regularly.  Saint Julian, as they called Cynthia's husband and Atheny's college roommate, was frequently out of town, spreading his laudable gospel at symposia, conferences, as distinguished visiting lecturer—wherever he could nag with inexorable logic. 

            Warren and Cynthia weren't having an affair; there was no romance, certainly no sex.   What they had in common was chiefly Julian Strickstarr and their complicated feelings towards him.  That, and a certain mutual regard, was sufficient for them to have become fast friends.  The first Peter Luger gourmandizing orgy had been Atheny's idea.  Turning it into a regular event was Cynthia's.  This was their third subversive supper.

            The waiter approached with a brace of outsized menus.   "Would you care for some dessert?"

            "Ah.  What shall we have for dessert?"

            "Something really bad, something sinful.  You choose for me."

            Atheny looked over the menu, then up at the waiter.  "A pair of Holy Cow Hot Fudge Sundaes, please—two decafs and the check."

            The waiter nodded and withdrew.

            "My turn to pay or yours?  I can't remember."

            "Neither can I, but I'll get it this time because you agreed to the lamb chops.  Besides, I got to choose the dessert."

            "Fair enough."

            Cynthia drained her wine and went back to complaining about her crusading, all-too-exemplary husband.

            "You know, when Julian first forced me to read his guru Peter Singer," she said, "I wanted to put up an argument.  I even tried, but I was clumsy.  I didn't know how.  Still don't, actually."

            "Julian discovered Singer when we were seniors and he made me read him, too."  Atheny sat up straighter, held up a finger.  "I am urging that we extend to other species the basic principle of equality that most of us recognize should be extended to all members of our own species."

            "You know it by heart too."

            Atheny was pretty good at impersonating his old roommate and Cynthia liked when he did it, giggling guiltily.  He did so again now.  "Speciesism is precisely the same as racism and sexism.  Meat-eating is no better than slave-holding besides being bad for your own health and ruinous for the planet'sSelah."

            After she stopped chortling, Cynthia said, "You know, after one of these carnivorous tête-à-têtes of ours, I always get this wonderful feeling of well-being.  It spreads all over."

            "Tension released?  Itch scratched?"

            "I suppose."

            "Meat-eating's no different from sex."

            "Oh, it's much, much better.  Really, you can't imagine what it's like.  All the Shalt Nots.  No car, no leather, thermostat set at fifty-eight in February, the awful diet.  Julian's raised self-righteous asceticism to a high art."

            "And stomped cuisine into a low one?"

            "Rice cakes and kale.  It might as well be bread and water.  Oh, and soybeans.  You must have heard the lecture on soybeans."

            "Sure.  Soybeans are the sole admissible source of protein."

            "That's it.  But what's really exasperating is his emotional detachment.  He never gets worked up.  It's as if he were following some ethical calculus without getting any emotional charge out of it."

            "You know, I did actually have an argument with him."

            "Really?  He didn't mention it.  Was it long ago?"

            "Nope, a couple weeks ago.  A frenetic exchange of emails." 

            The sundaes arrived followed by the decafs.

            "Holy cow!" exclaimed Atheny, inspecting the heap of calories piled atop the mountain of calories.  "Funny to call the thing that, isn't it?  Holy cow.  Here, I mean.  Now, if it were an Indian restaurant I could understand it—or a Singerian one maybe.  Imagine a Singerian bill-of-fare.  It would be an un-menu, Shalt Nots, as you say, a catalogue of the verboten:  beef for Hindus, pork for Muslims, shrimp for Jews, kidneys for Californians.  Did you know there's this one species of locust that's kosher?"

            Cynthia picked up the long spoon and dug into her sundae.  "You're blathering, Warren.  Stop it and tell me about your argument with Julian.  It's getting late so please make it the short version."

            "Well, I didn't exactly argue with him. I guess you could say I tried to out-Singer him, to go hyper-Julian on him.  It was more like judo than boxing."


            "Well, the big question about rights is always where they stop, isn't it?  Kant drew the line at people and called cows things.  You can eat things.  You can tan their hides.  Singer got famous for arguing that in the same way all people are due the same respect all species are too.  But even he had to draw some kind of line.  His condition wasn't IQ.  To him, horses and pigs are as much persons as we are; and some of them are lots smarter than some of us.  Singer drew his line based on the capacity for happiness or suffering.  Anything that can be happy has rights.  Or unhappy.  The fancy word for it is sentience.  Pleasure and pain.  Deep down, he's a Utilitarian, after all.  The greatest happiness and all that.  And happiness is just the presence of pleasure or the absence of pain.  I simply asked the faithful apostle where he'd draw the line."

            "What'd Julian say?"

            "He said Singer mentions a stone.  I wrote back that a stone isn't a meaningful place to draw the line because it's not part of any species at all.  But a potato is.  What of the right of potatoes not to be baked or fried?  What about a bacterium, I asked.  A germ?  I asked our saint whether, if I get sick and take an antibiotic and it works, I'm a mass-murderer in his eyes."

            "That was clever."

            "Not really.  Singer's moved his line from stones to microbes, presumably because germs can't suffer.  I asked Julian how Singer knew that, how he did.  I reminded him that, using pretty much the same logic, racists used to argue that slaves didn't have any souls and so they were things, like Kant's cattle."

            "Bet he didn't care for that."

            "Oh, not one bit.  How do you know that germs don't have interests?  Isn't the only difference that the racists use religious words rather than biological ones?  Julian equivocated in three full paragraphs.  I pointed out that Utilitarians were nineteenth-century Epicureans and that Epicurus said the soul was just the bunch of atoms we call the nervous system.  Don't germs react to stimuli?  Julian wrote back that my reductio ad absurdum argument was just that, absurd.  So then I pushed a little further."

            "I'll bet you did.  You like going further."

            "Why limit the principle of equal rights to animals?  The word animal derives from the Latin anima, the word for soul.  Why assign souls to animals and not to plants?  Wasn't he, rigid vegan that he is, committing the sin of speciesism too?  I waded into the soybean field.  I asked him about the interests of soybeans.  He said that I was being willfully ridiculous, just like when we were freshmen."

            "To which you willfully replied?"

            "That we now know plants can communicate, that they thrive if you play them Mozart and wilt if you blast them with heavy metal.  Plants have plenty of interests, I pointed out.  They're also interested in water, light, and nutrients and they suffer visibly if deprived of them.  They're interested in reproducing their kind.  Even soybeans."


            "I wound up by throwing in Nietzsche."

            "Oh, Julian hates Nietzsche.  He calls him the madman."

            "Yep.  Just why I quoted him.  Life, said the syphilitic sage, is exploitation.  In other words, to entirely avoid the exploitation of other species—or even members of our own—you'd need to be, well, dead."

            "This is really interesting. I'm surprised Julian didn't mention your emails."

            "Maybe that's because I'd gotten to him, just a little."

            Cynthia thought for a moment.  "And yet unlimited exploitation—even ignoring the moral issues—wouldn't that lead to death, too?  Exhausting resources, poisoning the planet?"

            "Right.  Even Nietzsche saw that.  He said the earth's a beautiful place but it has a fungus on it called Man.  That's logic for you.  One position leads to self-denial and death, the opposite to atrocity and death.  It's what they call the human condition."

            "So, what do we do?"

            Atheny shrugged and took a sip of coffee.  "What Odysseus did, I suppose.  Navigate carefully.  What I'd like to get our Julian to see is that life's problems simply aren't soluble by logic—at least not his kind—even though it's part of our condition to try to be logical.  And also to be consistent.  Julian works awfully hard at being consistent." 

            "Yes, he does."

            "Something I admire at the same time I'm deploring it."

            "So, the human condition is to have—what?—mixed feelings?"

            "Heroic hypocrisy.  Oh, look at the time.  Okay.  Ready to go?"

            "Yes.  It is late.  But you've given me a lot to think about."

            That night and the next day Cynthia did think things over.  And her thoughts overflowed the pitcher in which she tried to confine them.  She didn't just think about whether her husband's relentless puritanical logic might be flawed; she pondered something she usually did her best not to, her dissatisfaction.  These feelings were too intimate to mention to Atheny; she'd have felt disloyal even bringing them up.  And yet Atheny's account of his email exchange with Julian had given her a new way of considering her unhappiness, something different from guilt at not living up to her husband's ideals, the shame of loving to eat murdered cows.

            Was Julian's crusade, the ideas that got him invited to cities all over the world and acclaimed when he got there, deadly?  Could his drive to save the planet and his insistence on the inviolable rights of everything that lived on it really be life-denying?

            Cynthia decided to test Julian.  The notion began as a daydream over lunch, grew into a thought-experiment by the afternoon, and by the time Julian got home from haranguing the choir in Oslo, it had turned into an actual experiment.

            Despite the long flight, Julian wasn't a bit tired.  He never was.

            "Julian, sit down.  I've got something to tell you."

            "What is it?"

            "I'm pregnant."

            "What? Pregnant?  But the pills. . . Our agreement."

            "I know.  These things happen.  What I need to know is how you feel about it."

            It didn't occur to Julian to ask how she felt about it, of course; but at least he hesitated and, in those few moments of silence, she felt a surge of hope.

            It was soon dashed.  "We'll have to get an abortion."  That he said we'll was bad, but even worse was his tone.  It was the one he used to deliver his logical conclusions.

            Still, she couldn't help asking.  "You don't want to be a father?"

            "I didn't say that."


            "We're in crisis.  I mean the world is.  Sacrifices are required."

            "Too many people?"

            "Far too many."

            "And the worst of them all are Americans?"

            "You know the metrics.  Five percent of the world population using up twenty-five percent of the world's resources."

            "Yes.  You've told me.  If everybody lived like Americans, we'd need three more Earths."


            "So, the best thing to do for the planet would be to—what?—kill Americans?"

            "That's a terrible thing to say."

            "Why?  You've just proposed killing one of them."

            Julian looked at her in astonishment and there was something about the expression on his face that pushed Cynthia over a cliff she'd never suspected was there, just behind her.  She spoke without reflecting, her words far in advance of the tsunami of emotion that propelled them.

            "Relax, Julian.  I'm not pregnant.  But I am going to leave you."


  Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University's College of General Studies. He has published the story collections, Life in the Temperate Zone, The Decline of Our Neighborhood, The Artist Wears Rough Clothing, and Heiberg's Twitch; a book of essays, Professors at Play; two short novels, Losses and The Derangement of Jules Torquemal, and essays, stories, and poems in a variety of scholarly and literary journals. His novel Zublinka Among Women won the Indie Book Awards first-place prize for fiction.  A collection titled Petites Suites has just been published.  A collection of essays, The Posthumous Papers of Sidney Fein, is forthcoming in 2018.

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