My mother was always tremendously disappointed in me. It was the quiet sort, the kind you only notice when there’s nothing to distract you. The world clears, retreats like the ocean – and there it is; there it’s always been: the anchor in the sand.
It weighs you down, disappointment. Makes it difficult to fight back. Disappointed with your job? Shut up and do it; it’s easier than quitting. Disappointed with the way you look? Shut up and have another burger; it’s easier than dieting. It’s disappointing when your hero dies, doubly so when it’s your father.
My mother’s disappointment started when I became a bartender instead of attending university, and didn’t get any better when she married my mathematician stepfather. Meanwhile, I earned enough money to move out and open my own late-night bar. The long nights don’t bother me; geniuses often sleep antisocial hours.
The bus hiccups over ruts in the road as I draw ever nearer to the house where they live. He’s a genius too, and the paper he is writing will change the world – only it hasn’t yet. It’s been nearly thirty years, and if it weren’t for my mother, he would have been deported long ago, and his chance would be gone.
Perhaps he once planned to divorce her, but staying was easier. He doesn’t have to cook or clean or wash his clothes, and she looks up at him with those doleful brown eyes and she’s just so grateful. She stays out of his way so that he can work, and so that their fundamental incompatibility never surfaces.
He’s trying to find the formula for calculating the path of lightning; once he does that, it’s only a matter of time until mankind can control it.
“He’s so close!” says my mother, on the few occasions we speak.
I could tell him he’ll never be able to do it. Lightning only wants one thing, and it twists and writhes until it gets there. The lifespan of a lightning bolt is a constant, desperate, infinitely-complicated struggle. Impossible to calculate.
Humans, now . . . they’re different.
“Why did they have to take my van?” said one gin drinker to me. He’d lost thousands of dollars’ worth of electronics for his business and the strain was ruining his marriage. I could have told him about failsafes: insurance, GPS, and so on; red flashing alarm systems that deter all but the most naïve or reckless criminals. I didn’t, though. I served him his gin and shared his disappointment.
That’s the difference between the path of lightning and the path of a human: humans follow stories. They fall in and they float, waiting for their happy ending, and eventually they look at life – enormous and cold and merciless – and they look at the story they’ve created, and they make a decision.
And it isn’t: ‘I choose life.’
I read a lot of stories. It’s true what they say: there are no new stories left, only rewrites of the classics. Everybody understands that, even if they don’t know it for a fact. I no longer see people coming through my doors. I only see stories, the same stories, repeating forever.
And it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that I’m in a story, too.
You know the one: the genius who rejects her calling, who follows her own path, who changes the world on her own terms and finally makes peace with her estranged lover/best friend/brother.
Except happy endings don’t happen to you. They all said I was a genius, so why did it take me so long to realise? I’m going to soak up the disappointment of everyone at my bar, and one day it will drown me, and a few sad drinkers will come to my funeral; the end.
My mother was always disappointed in me, and maybe she always will be, but there are pages left to be written. Our story is thirty years old, it’s strong, and the strongest stories suck people away like rip tides and bind them to anchors on foreign beaches. I can’t let that happen.
Maybe I still have the chance to be lightning.