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Enviable Levels
by Janelle Bassett

“If you encounter a woman on the street (she is a stranger but one who looks warm and knowable) and she doesn't smile or look you in the eye, how do you feel? And how would you like that feeling altered? Be specific.”

My husband looks up from his book. This is our new nightly routine. We get in bed and he tries to read and I try to make progress on my forms and two minutes into our separate silences I interrupt to read questions aloud and ask for his input.

He bends the corner of the page he's no longer reading.

“How much longer is this form? How many questions total?”

I flip to the back of the form booklet.

“546. Total.”

“God. And most are two-part questions, like this one.”

“Correct. One: What's your current level of expectation and two: Where do you want it to be?” Is the number 546 higher than you expected it? Where would that number be for you, ideally?”

“Are we making jokes about the forms now? I've been holding back.”

“No.”

“No?”

“I can joke about them but you cannot. I need the levity since I'm the one undergoing the procedure.”

“But I'm undergoing the forms.”

“You're a form consultant. Your consultant fee can be...jokes under your breath. Ones I can't hear.”

He lifts up the comforter over our legs and whispers into it, then fakes a laugh under there with our knees.

He comes back out and laughs for real, at himself, at his bed-bit, maybe feeling how his hair’s been mussed.

Do I expect my husband to make jokes at night time? Do I expect him to solve my riddles—with me or for me? And should I? With both? I can’t tell. I’m tired. I hate all levels of expectation. The forms!

“Very funny. What do you think of this one...walking by an unknown lady and getting no acknowledgement? I don't think that would bother me. Do you think that would bother me?”

“No. Why would that bother you? But you can't be adjusted based on my perception of your expectations. You have to be adjusted based on your true expectations.”

“I know, I know. I just want help landing on my own answer. I have to talk it out, bring it to life.”

“Do you want me to be a lady walking by you?”

He's used to this. He has been, thanks to the forms: a horse my sibling got for Christmas, a boss who thinks I know Microsoft Excel, a cashier letting me know that my card is declined, and a stylist who tells me I have an unflattering chin-point and must therefore discourage a bob, which I'd already told everyone I was getting.

“Yes, thank you.”

We both roll out of the warm bed. The day’s no longer over.

I say, “What's our scene here? Where are we?”

“City street. Afternoon. Overcast.”

“Okay. I'll walk this way from the closet toward the chair and you pass me from the other direction.”

“Should I wear something womanly? I could hold a purse of yours.”

In past enactments I've dressed him or given him props. As the stylist he used a comb to point at my chin.

“No, I can imagine all that. But walk like this.”

I show him how this lady walks, in my mind. She sways but it's not performative. She has both loosey hips and somewhere to be.

“Like this?”

His version is a mockery of all the women who have ever lived and walked proudly.

“No, Dan. That's not it at all. Why don't I be the woman and you be me?”

“But then how would we find your expectation in the scenario?”

“We wouldn't, Dan. I was joking.”

I must tell the doctor to take me down to a level where my husband's inability to register my jokes doesn't make me feel like a shadow puppet hoisted on stage via attached stick but hoisted without being lit up from behind—making me the only one who can even see that it's a stage.

“Sorry. Show me again.”

I try a simpler version of the walk. Maybe the way she goes down her own hallway.

Dan tries it. It's not right, but it's fine. He's pleased with himself. Adds an arm movement. Dan’s levels are enviable. His mother only bathed him once a week, fed him a rotation of three meals.

“Places!” he calls. “City street!”

At the closet door I look past Dan and envision skyscrapers and a café. No a deli. No a high-end crêperie. An urban farm?

“Jeena?”

Oh, Dan’s already at the door with me. I missed it. I forgot to see her and feel potentially snubbed or potentially nothing.

“Sorry, sorry. Can we try again? I had a scene issue.”

“You were creating an entire cityscape, weren't you?”

He's familiar with my scene issues. When he was a horse I put him in a heated stable with a rocking chair for guests. But then my sister wouldn't let me inside.

“I might do a cobblestone street this time. So make her walk like she might get stuck in a crack. That's a joke, FYI.”

“Tell your doctor about this. You shouldn't have to need so many details in order to imagine. This will be a useful example for her, for your leveling.”

“I’m curious now, how did you envision the city street while you walked?”

“Just, gray.”

“Like a hazy fog?”

“No, a solid gray.”

“Like concrete?”

“Not that solid, but closer.”

“Like...grey cardboard?”

“Yes, like cardboard painted gray. Hastily, with a big brush.”

“And that was enough to get you into the scene?”

“Sure.”

“Fascinating.”

“Thank you.”

“Enviable levels.”

“Thank you. Let's go again. Try the gray.”

From our opposite sides we go again; this time I walk too and try to see gray but my gray is foggy and floats away and behind it is an ATM for my obscure bank (no fees) but then I see a woman and she's a little older than me. Her style is one I cannot achieve. I can tell from her outfit, expression, walk, aura that she has a lot to say about men in hats, exotic rug placement, sequencing of hors d’oeuvres, but also commoner topics like how she too once read the word “footsore’ twice in a single day. She laughs deep like a frog in a cave, I can tell, even though she's not currently amused. I want her to see me and see the promise of me too. Then she's gone. Past.

Dan reaches the door and turns back around.

“Verdict?”

“I'm devastated.”

“That a woman you do not know did not acknowledge you?”

“Apparently, yes.”

“That's all it takes to devastate you?”

“You can't judge my reactions. We've got to get to the heart of my levels.”

“Sorry. I just can't imagine having that reaction. The people I walk past are all gray and do not engage my expectations.”

“She didn't know me but I knew her. I mean, in that moment I knew her. She sleeps in fancy silk robes that hit just below the knee. She memorizes entire book passages, not to recite for anyone, just to possess the words. I want to be that kind of lady.”

“I know you do, my love. But not for much longer.”

“I need to get some sleep. I’ll have to get up early. I forgot to pack the kids’ lunches. There’s a lot I need to get done tomorrow. The day’s not going to day itself.”

Dan looks sad about me.

“Do you really see days as still hulking objects that need to be pulled along by a string?”

Instead of expecting an answer he gets into bed first and lifts up the comforter over my side of the bed.

“Get in. Stop pulling.”

****

At work, I look up video testimonials and watch them on mute with captions. The captions are mostly inaccurate but I get the gist. “I feel life a newberry baby. I export nothing. I enjoy evening around me.”

If you search “LoExa testimonials” you get 47,000 hits. The Lowered Expectations procedure has been performed 320 times according to their official site (getdownstaydown.org), so almost all of the testimonials are fake. Making LoExa videos was a trend for a couple weeks. A pop star made one, even—she sang off-key wearing loafers. Jokes. Still, I find the videos helpful—just knowing what people think the outcome might look like.

There's a subset of videos about LoExa reversals, or attempted reversals. Officially, the procedure is permanent. Expectations can be manipulated downward but never raised. Raising levels would be too dangerous, according to the FAQs, even if the capability existed. But people in the reversal videos claim to have undone the lowering. Each extols some homespun reversal method. One woman put apple cider vinegar in her neti pot twice daily for a week and says burning her face plumbing got her back up two levels so she can at least find a parking space instead of driving around the lot for hours.

It's most likely she's lying, has never had the procedure at all, just wants to be seen, had vinegar in her cupboard, got an idea suddenly, laughed at her own parking lot joke, probably needs the procedure.

There's a man (StopTryingSteve) who posts videos daily. His are my favorite. He's upbeat and his head moves around a lot when he speaks, like it has been untied from the expectations of a neck. His are not reversal stories. He loves LoExa. He’s in love with wanting nothing. He says he wakes up in the morning and his first thought is something like “This is fine” or “I am in my bed” or “Today is happening.” It's never “Someone is expecting me to do this thing today and I must rise and do it” or “My feet are cold” or “Has it rained overnight or might it start raining around 10 and ruin my plans and where is my umbrella—the trunk?—and I think that umbrella is busted, won't stay opened, and I need to get up and go buy a new umbrella.”

Steve is a proponent (via example) of going extra-low-level and then hiring a live-in aide. At extra-low-level you need someone to brush your teeth, change your sheets, offer to show you sunrises and sunsets, which continually take you by surprise. This is controversial. Who can afford to go so low as to be non-functional and then hire out functionality? The super-rich, the mega-monied. Steve must be a billionaire so I should hate him and suspect him of corporate greed but instead I check back constantly for new videos. He's reassuring. He's consistent.

Some days there are videos of Steve being shaved by his aide. She has to tell him to stop smiling over and over so she can make even strokes. Then Steve is unfailingly astonished by his smooth face, can't stop rubbing his own cheeks.

I want to be astonished by simple daily occurrences. I want to be mesmerized by the showerhead’s stream. But I don't want to want mesmerization. I write this notion down on a piece of paper at my desk then shove it in my purse, which is full of these kind of notes in hopes they prove useful for leveling or for upcoming form questions. The other day I went digging through my purse for a tissue and came out with a paper reading “like a sloth but with more mobility, the soul of a sloth but the duty of a solar-powered windmill.”

Dan has seen Steve's videos over my shoulder at home, where I can watch my videos with sound. Dan finds it easy to hate Steve. He says if Steve's levels were really so low then how could he even maintain an online presence featuring daily videos? I told him the aide must help, must keep him interested in the camera, must record and post.

I clap back only because I have a right to spend my attention on stupid endeavors—like watching a twelve minute video of Steve poring over a wall calendar, effusively pronouncing each month and holiday. After he said Rosh Hashanah aloud he got full body pleasure goosebumps for a full sixty seconds. There was an extended closeup of his pokey bicep. But I probably know that his videos are most likely fake. They might be paid advertisements for LoExa—Steve a hired performer, the aide a Shakespearean actor. LoExa would want to encourage people to go extra-low-level. It costs more.

Someone walks behind me, past my cubicle. I toggle from a video of Steve laughing at his wiggling toes to a spreadsheet. The spreadsheet doesn't speak aloud either. Seamless transition. I'm busy.

Toggle back to Steve. His aide has served him applesauce. He exclaims, according to the captions, “It is apple you can eat with a spook!”

Another reason to suspect Steve’s a fake: men very rarely get LoExa. This is not a fact listed on their official site. I read this statistic in an exposé of LoExa. A respectable news source interviewed verified LoExa recipients and scored a source working inside the company. They found that men and women were equally likely to be interested in LoExa, to be receptive to the advertising and to visit the official LoExa site for more information on the procedure. It's at the next step that the group divides. When the person goes to their friends and family to tell them they are considering a surgery to lower their expectations, the reaction of the support group determines whether the person goes forward with the procedure. And it seems that a man’s friends and family will pull him back, encourage him not to give up his reaching, bolster his confidence in trying again, trying more. And the people surrounding a woman will say “Yes do it, you deserve relief, a break, let go, you've tried hard enough.”

If Steve had come to me before his procedure and asked for my blessing (according to stats) I would have said, “I do not know you, I've never seen your face but keep going. Onward and upward, march to the beat of that drummer inside you, you've got all the drumsticks you need.”

And the smooth cheeks he smoothed himself would be unremarkable to him. Serves him right, for being a commercial.

If Dan came to me and said, “Jeena, I'm considering LoExa,” how would I react? I consider this a lot. Instead of working. I hope I'd be supportive of his choices. I hope I'd acknowledge his down-feelings that led to LoExa curiosity. But I worry that I'd feel a sense of personal failure—that I hadn't kept him buoyed up. Or a sense of failure that I'd chosen a partner who is weak and languishing and unable to live up to his own meager dreams and why do I have to be the kind of person who loves him?

I take a post-it from my desk drawer and quickly write: Want level where I feel all are deserving of my love, no judgey love that must be earned.

I fold it to go into my purse then unfold it and add: but also some people are mean/bad so I want my level above having to love them.

Then I add several question marks and slip it into a side pocket with previously folded ideas and my rewards card from a shoe store I've been to once.

That's lunch. I close the video, turn off my monitor. Lunchtime is for forms.

****

Here's what Little Jeena expected for Adult Jeena: creative outlets, a pristine complexion, playmates who “get it,” en suite bathrooms, frocks for frolicking, many many mate choices to be narrowed down to one or two, friends with good ideas, meaning, job titles, sensible pets, children who were silent except when laughing, a linen closet full of high-end sheets, vacation plans, knowledge about plants and cooking sauces.

No, no: bumps, hardly, no, some frocks yes, no, their ideas are so meager, nope, plural? no, no, haha, a stack of cotton sheets underneath my winter coats, never, I barely even tried.

*****

I brought soup for lunch. Only now, at lunchtime, do I see the risk to my forms—broth dribbles. I could eat my soup quickly then get to my forms afterward but I expected to get through three questions at lunch. I need every minute of my break to be a form minute.

In the office kitchenette/break room I warm my soup in a mug then drain all the liquid into the sink. Dry soup—chicken, carrots, spiral noodles, unblemished forms.

At my desk I set up for max efficiency. I move my keyboard, replace it with my form booklet. The forms won't fit in my purse so I've been carrying them around in a separate cloth bag that reads “Fingers are for Glovers” which I swear I acquired without choosing, without money. To my right I place my mug of docked ships, on a napkin, near a spoon.

I've marked my place. Question 189. I take a bite and chew while I read.

Question 189: How many pillows do you believe is necessary for a made bed? What number is excessive? What amount is paltry to your current sensibilities? And what number of pillows do you suppose is a healthy expectation that will lead to fulfillment around pillows without giving sacrifice to comfort? Do not provide a range, give an exact number of pillows.

The chicken without the broth is a salty cube of death. A living thing made dead then bite-sized using steel. I taste the metal, blade and can.

Pillows. I need one, right off, for my head. I wouldn't want to go to a pillowless level. Neck crooks, headaches. Expectations can't solve the well-known angle discrepancy between shoulder and ear. And then one pillow for Dan. Two pillows minimum.

Oh cute, it's a romantic question wrapped up in a pillow question. Wait, is it? Am I supposed to live alone in this scenario so I can more clearly define my (MY) expectations?

I reread the question. It says “a made bed” and not “your made bed” so maybe I'm to consider the number of pillows for a standard generic bed. Like a hotel bed? But a hotel bed might be a special occasion bed—a honeymoon bed or a New-Year's-Eve bed—and certainly special occasions are deserving of celebratory pillows. For the display alone, a scene of comfort. Life's a puddle of pillows.

But alternatively a hotel bed could be a flew-in-for-a-funeral bed or a loveless-affair bed in which case a scene of comfort might be a stark, upsetting reminder that others deserve celebratory pillows even when you personally are inside a sad bed event.

I think I'll just write “two” for the necessary part. For obscene can I write “well, seven if it's a funeral bed and no number of pillows could ever be obscene on a honeymoon bed?”

No, can't. The forms, as far as I can tell, have no sense of humor. No winks or nods. Straight-up asking.

I sift through my purse scraps (which become meaningless and nonsensical the moment they enter) and find my phone. I had hoped to knock these few questions on my own, but I need back-up.

I put down my phone, find a scrap of paper and write “a level where I have the confidence to answer questions without reassurance and guidance from others but not a level so low that I answer alone because I do not anticipate that others can help me in any way.”

I call my sister. She's a good one to call because she's home with her kids and although she's busy she's not being paid for specific output or being watched by a boss-type so she always answers. She typically sounds like she's taken shelter in a phone booth during a hurricane, but she answers.

“Jeena?! Jeena, what's going on? I can barely hear you.”

“I can't speak very loud. I'm in the office. I have a form question. I need your help on this one.”

“Is it another one about whether to look at your own reflection when you walk by a window? Because that was really a waste of two hours. My kids had pulled down the curtains and were eating styrofoam peanuts by the time we got to an answer and our answer was only one word.”

“Yes.”

“It is another question about reflections?”

“No, I wasn't saying yes to that. I was saying our answer was yes.”

“And I think I've come around on that. We should have said no.”

“I don't have time to go back and reconsider form questions, Jory.”

“How's Dan? Is his knee still giving him trouble?”

“I don't have time to talk about Dan’s knee! Listen to the question!”

I read her 189, very carefully so I'm providing her the exact wording.

She says, “Hmmm.”

“I'll tell you my thoughts but I want to hear yours before they become tainted by mine.”

“Well my first thought is you need four pillows. Two for each person. Five is excessive, two is paltry but one is worse.”

“Okay. What about the healthy expectation part?”

“I think four is healthy enough. Then again my expectations don't need adjustment.”

“Right...”

“Two pillows might be fine as long as they weren't those thin, floppy kind. You need two of those for one head.”

“Wait, is that why you said four minimum? Are you assuming thin pillows?”

“I guess I am. See! My expectations are naturally pretty low. It's because Mom always told you that you were smart and cute and she told me I was ‘just fine the way God made me.”

“Why didn't they give us pillow dimensions to work with? We need to know thickness and stuffing material.”

“And there's also decorative pillows to consider. TOBY! STOP! GIVE IT TO ME. I SAID GIVE IT. WHERE DID YOU GET THAT? YOU KNOW NOT TO TOUCH THAT! NEVER AGAIN, OKAY? IT WILL BITE YOU! NOW GO PLAY, I’M ON THE PHONE WITH AUNT JEENA. I'm sorry. Toby went into the bathroom and managed to swipe the blade out of my razor and was carrying it around like a prize. I'm not surprised. I should have put it up higher.”

“Really? I am surprised. How could he get it out? Why couldn't he see it was dangerous and sharp? It seems like he'd know better. He's three now.”

“Mom really did a number on you. ‘You’re so clever and picturesque Jeena! Your children will never make poor choices!”

“What were you saying about decorative pillows?”

“You're assuming a pile of plain white pillows but then there's the ones that go on top with a sham to match the bedspread and then the small colorful ones for flair.”

“Oh, right. And those long tube-shaped ones?”

“Sleeve pillows.”

“Is that a term?”

“No, I don't know. That's what I call them.”

I remember my soup remains. I force a bite. Lukewarm, cooling death.

“I'm more confused than ever. I don't know what to answer.”

“Just factor in decorative pillows. What do you require in terms of decorative pillows?”

“I don't require them but maybe I should.”

“They can't adjust you up, remember?”

“Yes, good. That means I'll say two as current level and stay with two as my expected level because I don't want a pillowless level or Danless level.”

“Done!”

“Thanks Jory. Mom was right, you’re just fine the way God made you.”

“Funny. Good luck with the next one. The answer is probably no.”

“The answer is probably ‘it depends.”

“Bye.”

I write my pillow conclusions while forcing bites. Cold noodles less off-putting. I unspiral them with my tongue.

Question 190:

Imagine yourself in a classroom setting. The teacher has asked the group a question. You think you know the answer and you raise your hand. Three other hands go up. They are the smartest people in the class. How do you feel? What do you do next? And what's the preferred response of an ideal you?

A classroom. I wish Dan were here to be the teacher or a competing raised hand. I close my eyes, try to enact the whole thing in-house.

I'm in a huge lecture hall with stadium seating. I can barely see the teacher. No. I need it smaller, younger. I open my eyes to reset. Take two. I'm in a classroom. My legs are under a desk and I'm in the middle of a row of desks. The teacher up front, female with friendly child-pleasing hair, asks us the capital of Montana. I know this. I raise my hand. My grandma lived in Montana. She had jury duty in Helena once. Other hands go up. I look around and behind. The hands belong to three adults over fifty wearing professional attire, navy blue. And headsets, they all have headsets. I still know the capital of Montana. I keep my hand raised.

The teacher calls on me. “Yes, Jeena?”

The navy headsets all look at me.

I can’t say anything. You think you know the answer.

They seem to be communicating via headsets, using low whispers. The one in the front row gestures to the teacher, a gesture I don’t recognize using both pinkies and the teacher nods.

She says, “You don’t know, do you Jeena?”

I open my eyes. It’s 12:30. That’s lunch.

********

You have a son. His hair color is irrelevant but it's also brown. He is ten. He is sweet, still sits on your lap at times. He is also lacking in curiosity. He never had a “why” phase. For his school science fair he completes an experiment testing the efficacy of dish soap. He tests only two kinds of soap and uses one on a metal pan and the other on a glass casserole dish. He is awarded a third place ribbon. How do you feel about his achievement? About his school? Is this a high point or a low point, him holding a green ribbon and posing beside his poster board? Also, we forgot to mention, he titled his project: Thanks Dish Soap! Now, now, how would you like this very likely scenario to strike you post-procedure? Explain which aspects you want to feel glad about. Designate a place in your home for displaying the ribbon.

You live within walking distance of the library and you are in need of an engrossing novel to carry you through the last longest days of winter. The sun is scarce. You've been wearing a scarf indoors. You decide a walk to the library is the remedy you need. You bundle up and brave the cold and it's not that bad, really. You might be feeling invigorated. You're facing adversity. Inside the library you go to the “New Release” section and pick up a book because you like the cover—colorful geometric shapes against a blue sky. The blurbs are promising. “A debut that screams whoodie doodie.” “A romp of some worth.” You check it out and note the due date and feel satisfied with its promising weight on the walk home. You make a cup of tea and sit down with your book. The first three pages are a description of how the light is shining into a room. Discuss. You know the deal: now reaction, new reaction.

You have a large glorious tree in your backyard. It provides shade and a habitat for you to engage with. Your own nest! But also, so many leaves. Ten bags worth. It's the beginning of fall and you must rake the first round of fallen leaves so that the next round is even doable. You scrape your rake around your lawn and form a small pile. After ten minutes of work you've piled up around 5% of the leaves. Then a wind blows and leaves fall anew and you're back below 0%, as if you'd never started. As you let the setback settle over you, you see that your neighbor’s small daughter is watching you from her upstairs window. Do you keep raking? If so, what percent of the leaves do you collect? Do you leave the piles for another day or bag them up then and there? Do you keep the girl’s attention by dancing a little, dipping the rake and kissing the handle? INCLUDE ACTUAL AND PREFERRED RESPONSES.

Your romantic partner of twenty years gets you a pricey gift—a gesture he/she has never tried before. Your partner is so thrilled, cannot wait until OCCASION for you to open your present, instead foists it on you three days prior while you're still drinking coffee. It's a helicopter tour of the town you've lived in since birth.

You go out to dinner with a group of close friends. You disclose none of your despair.

The bisque is too thick. You don't want to have to ask anyone where the bathroom is. React.

You're having sex with a person you've desired for a long time. Your genitals are perfectly groomed. Your back goes out.

You meet your best friend’s new romantic partner. He's anyone.

You buy coffee at the only gas station for miles.

A cat walks into a room. Go.

You look up at the sky. What was it?

You bake a pie for the first time.

You go to a friend’s art exhibit.

You buy a rolling suitcase for $25.

You meet your birth mother.

Someone honks.

Polling place.

Airplane.

Swimwear.

Y?

N?

K?

*****

Dr. Klausner says anyone who completes the forms probably needs the procedure.

I've done it. It took three months of form work. So many phone calls, reenactments, required daydreams. The process of questioning my every expectation in hopes of pinpointing my level has not exactly lowered my expectations, but it has them scared and isolated. We've found them and they are looking flimsy.

Now we meet in Dr. Klausner’s office for “next steps.” I've brought Dan along, for support and to carry the forms. My right shoulder is now lower than my left from the burden of the forms. The ripple effect has a nipple affect—my right breast has descended. They're no longer a set or a pair, are now more like an opening act and the headliner.

I take the forms from Dan’s bag and place them on the doctor's desk.

She thumps them twice and says, “Great.”

She doesn't look at them or read any answers. Maybe she can suss out my level by hearing the pitch of her thump, like a ripe melon.

She puts her hand on them again, possibly to feel any remaining reverberation.

“I'll get to these soon. First let me tell you the next steps. You've passed a major hurdle. The forms do a lot of people in. Literally. Now what I need from you, if you're still serious, is your spouse’s signature and permission from a licensed therapist.”

“I have to get permission from my husband? And my therapist?”

“As a precaution, yes. It's a legal thing.”

“What if I weren't married?”

“We'd need a signature from a parent or sibling. A coworker of over five years is acceptable also. But everyone receiving LoExa so far has been married.”

Dan giggles.

“Glad I could help,” and he grabs my hand to hold.

“He’ll sign. And I'm already seeing a therapist so that shouldn't be an issue either.”

The doctor says, “Okay, signatures pending. Now is a good time for me to answer any questions you may have. Let me quell any fears.”

Dan speaks up.

“Why should she get LoExa instead of taking an antidepressant?”

He's never raised this question to me.

“Well for one I'm not depressed, Dan! I'm expectant! It's totally different. One is down and one is up.”

“Let me field this, Jeena. I've answered this many times. People are more comfortable with pills, I get it—they're so small. But drugs, I mean depending on the drug—there are so many, drugs make you feel numbed to what you see. You have less reaction, and maybe that feels nice, maybe that feels better than a bad reaction. But LoExa is not to numb, it is to...clarify. To see the world without any pesky ideas of what the world should look like.”

Dan says, “Like a factory reset?”

“A bit, sure. Her reactions will not be dampened, her reactions will be unbridled. Does that make sense?”

Dan and I nod, because she answered the question and not because we understand. I squeeze Dan’s hand and he says “Go ahead.” He knows what I want to ask.

“Doctor, what about going too low? What are the risks?”

“You've seen the videos then?”

“Yes.”

“You know they are mostly fakes.”

“Yes.”

“Almost entirely fakes, I can tell you.”

“Can you tell me if StopTryingSteve has had LoExa?”

“I cannot. I can say we've had very few cases of going ‘too low.’ We had one woman with an adjustment a bit lower than we intended because she sneezed mid-procedure. But she's thriving! She's amazed at her two-year-old’s hide and seek abilities. She finds network sitcoms hilarious, so was able to cancel her paid streaming subscriptions. That's a monthly savings! She found a man who neither beats nor hugs her. She gave us a five star rating.”

“But...wouldn't she give everything five stars?” I ask.

“Exactly. Like I said, she's thriving!”

Dan wants to know about the actual procedure, the specific technique.

“It's a highly calibrated procedure. It's not a crude poke like a lobotomy.”

“Is it a brain surgery though? Will I have to shave my head?”

“It's not a brain operation, although most recipients expect it will be. It's a five point procedure. We go into your gut, fingertips, corneas, and heart. Afterward we recalibrate the brain by showing a slideshow.”

“A slideshow of what?” Dan asks. I’m concerned about the heart surgery, he wants to know what’s going on with the slideshow.

“It’s a proprietary blend of images.”

I notice then that the office feels stuffy and menacing, like the whole room contains the answers to all my problems but the answers are brand-new problems.

“I’m sorry, did you say you’ll be messing with my heart?”

“Only very little. We partially clog one artery. It’s not open-heart. We go in through your arm. I promise it’s not as risky as it sounds.”

“Yeah, Jeena, the heart stuff is perfectly safe. The dicey part is with your eyes.”

I frown at Dan.

“Sorry, doctor. He’s worried about me and this is how it comes out. His little jokes.”

“Sorry, doc. I am 100% supportive of Jeena. I’ll sign anything. I just don’t want her returned with unrecognizable limbs or anything.”

“I understand your concerns, Dan. She’ll still be Jeena. We aren’t taking anything from her but a cloudy lens. Really, we are just polishing the lens, removing the grime. That reminds me. You’ll need to fill this out.”

Dr. Klausner swivels around to a file cabinet behind her and bends over in her chair to dig through papers.

She places her chosen sheet on the desk.

“This is your Extraction Selection Form.”

“My what?”

“The grime I mentioned in my lens example—those are the unreasonable expectations, right? So when we go in and clean that off, we must do something with the removed grime or the extracted expectations.”

Dan says, “You mean there’s a tangible substance removed?”

“Tangible to us, yes. Here’s what you get to do Jeena: You get to choose who will benefit from your extracted expectations. It’s up to you.”

I pick up the form and read my options.

Single dads, corporations, middle school art teachers, people who frequent bowling alleys, newborn babies.

I don’t need to read on.

“I pick newborn babies. Unless… does that just mean they’ll need the surgery later?”

“No, no. They’re getting the boost so early that they actually have time to live up to their expectations. And we’re careful with the levels. Think high school graduate level, not NASA level. You are doing this at just the right time. We’ve recently figured out how to give the babies the extraction in utero. The newborns were always spitting so much of it back up.”

“What do the corporations do with it? Just curious.”

“I knew you’d ask, Dan. They use it against their competitors actually. One corporation will use the extracts to raise consumers expectations about a competitor's products, so that the consumers are then disappointed and let down by the competition.”

“How?”

I squeeze Dan’s hand hard to say, Really with the questions?

“I can’t tell you that part, I’m sorry. I realize it’s an ugly practice but they pay well and their payment enables us to help more people.”

“I pick the babies. Or the fetuses, I guess. Do I get to see a picture of the baby I sponsored?”

Dr. Klausner and Dan look at me like they wish I’d already had the procedure.

********

It is afternoon, which is fine with me. I am at the dining room table which is, sure, a good place for me to be. Through the window I see a cloudy day. Gray. Splendid. Actually, that makes me laugh. It's gray outside, just like Dan’s world. Hahahaha. A Dan day.

I laugh so much now. My cheeks get sore but the soreness is often pleasurable.

Dan has taped a list to my arm again. I’m surprised to see it there, and also thrilled. I move my arm and the list holds on tight. I'm so proud of it. I have to laugh.

The first item says “Print Goldie's permission slip.”

I remember. Her class is going on a trip. Her teacher emailed me the slip weeks ago. But I never check my email anymore. I can check it and I can read it, I simply have no urge surrounding emails. There was a form question about this, I recall. They found the right email level for me, I can tell. Five stars!

I open my computer and click my email. Thanks, computer! There's the permission slip one. Oh, and I see that an online retailer is having a coat sale. Nice of them to let me know. I'm so happy for all the people who need coats, but my existing coat is beyond satisfactory.

I open the attachment from the teacher. Goldie will like the grenade exhibit at the history museum! That's a nice event for kids!

I'm printing but my computer is talking to me now. Fine!

“Wake up and shake up with Cupman’s coffee!”

Oh, another tab is playing a commercial. I find the right tab and see a woman drinking her coffee. She's sitting at her table, just like me. What a joy, synchronicity. What a nice woman. What a nice mug.

The likeable mug-woman offers her line to me, smiling. “Because the day’s not going to day itself!”

Well.

A familiar phrase! My own, even. Familiar phrases, so...reassuring.

I feel a strong sensation that my body can only understand as an itch. My thigh itches furiously, urgently. I scratch at it through my pants. Then it's my calf, like a pack of ants. I pull at my hem and see my skin red and angry. I can't think of why. I can't think of any small bugs I'd encountered.

So (itchy!) my expectations grime was not given to a fetus. I am not a fairy godmother and that's okay. Preferable even—I've always loved coffee. Coffee is for everyone. Babies are for two people, four tops.

My corporate extraction, right here on my table! How lucky I am to have encountered it!

I wouldn't expect my checked boxes to be taken as gospel. I wouldn't expect preferences to survive in the wild.

The itch quiets down. The red feels gone.

I play the commercial again. Not for the words but for the song in the background. It's several voices together, scatting a hum that sounds just like a promising morning.

Janelle Bassett’s work has appeared in The Rumpus, River Styx and Split Lip. She has two identical blue chairs but she only writes in the one that’s her writing chair. She lives in St. Louis.

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More from Issue 1 -
Two poems by Aida Riddle