It’s hard to remember a time when I haven’t been somewhere else, barely conscious of my immediate surroundings. With high-speed internet, high-definition TV, video games, iPod, cellphone, all the buzzing distractions of the latest flame war or celebrity gossip, sometimes I can go for half a minute without even remembering to draw a breath. If someone else were in the room with me, they’d probably notice the sudden, sharp intake of breath and assume it indicated surprise, or some other strong reaction. But the great thing about being entertained 24/7 is the way real surprises are kept to an absolute minimum. Surprises interfere with comfort.
But one day, I couldn’t ignore it any longer: something fungal and pustulent had flourished in my neglect. It was like something from a B-grade horror flick. At first it grew in a corner of the living room, and I thought I could simply ignore it and continue to focus on the screen, any screen. But then it drifted forward on an army of pseudopodia and colonized a small backpack I carried with me everywhere I went, because it had handy compartments for laptop, water bottle, cellphone, PDA, digicam and umbrella, not to mention a hidden pocket with three, 20-year-old tabs of LSD that I kept on hand as a hedge against apocalypse.
What the hell was it? I didn’t care; I just wanted rid of it. It swelled into a purplish brown pod or capsule some eighteen inches in diameter, and I began to get a little apprehensive. I went down to the fire station and got someone to blast it with a hose, which peeled off the outer, spongy layer and revealed something even more repulsive underneath — a kind of amorphous, yellow goo. I had seen this kind of thing before, I realized, but I couldn’t remember where. Perhaps in a blog?
I abandoned the pack, but the thing took human form and began to trail me. It turned into a quiet little girl with a runny nose and a head permanently bowed, as if mortified by shame. Quiet people scare me — it knew this. Quite people, and girls. But I began to feel responsible for her, and re-shouldered the pack with her in it. Fortunately, she hardly weighed a thing, being at some level still just a hollow capsule.
It was spring, and the trees in the park were just beginning to burst their buds. I went and looked at the fountain, which had been turned on for the first time that morning, and found that I liked the sound of the water better than any of the tunes in my iPod.
Passers-by began to notice the creature in the bag: Your daughter? they’d ask, and I answered Yes, because it was easier than telling the truth. My loathing had subsided, but not the feeling of dread. Finally, though, I stopped being a coward and spoke to her.
I had sat down on a park bench with the pack and its strange passenger resting beside me. I think you can go now, I said. She raised her head and I looked straight in her face. I saw she was a full-grown woman now, and not at all bad-looking. Her eyes focused on something beyond me, and she smiled the vaguest of smiles. Then she stood up, slung my pack over her shoulders, and joined the stream of pedestrian traffic. I lost sight of her in less than a half a minute. I took a deep breath. It was almost noon.