"Love or be loved are like rubbing your stomach and patting your head—nearly impossible to accomplish simultaneously"
“She nodded in a way that meant she had no interest in such things: San Francisco specifically, but really the world outside Needles. He tried to imagine himself as Britta, spending his days interacting with people who were on the move, coming from or going to places that he had never seen, maybe never even heard of. Was it possible that she had not once felt the urge to pack up and follow, to solve the mystery of who Britta would be—would become—in Columbus, Ohio, or Roanoke, Virginia? It seemed inconceivable to him, to have no curiosity about one’s parallel lives, those lives that different places would demand that you live.”
“Perhaps that was the nature of love: either a person was not in it enough to care, or was in it too deeply to make anything but mistakes.”
“Aaron stopped to eat just after Bakersfield, at a place marked by an old door propped up beside the road, doorknob intact, painted with the words SALS FOOD. The apostrophe—what his students called “the up comma”—was missing, though he knew that the sign looked the same to most people with the apostrophe or without. He could not get over this, for all he could see was the missing mark; it was like looking at a face without a nose.”
“Listen,” she said. “Is it because he’s Korean? Is that what this is about? You’re going to sit there and make one of those bullshit cultural relativity arguments?” She let her voice drift up to a breezy falsetto: “‘Oh, it’s wrong for an American to call me a fat pig, but we need to excuse him since he’s from a different culture.’ Because I can assure you that there are plenty of fat Koreans who would feel just as humiliated as I did, and he knows that. And if he doesn’t, well, it’s time he learned.”
She was breathing heavily, not even waiting for him to reply. “Or maybe you think I should be used to it by now. I’m fat, so I need to expect people to say things, right? It goes with the territory. Is that it, Aaron?” She pounded the table hard as she spoke, the basket of nachos hopping like a rabbit toward the edge. “Or maybe this is some male solidarity thing that I’m just not getting?” She studied him. “Somehow, I don’t peg you that way, but there you have it. Help me out if I’ve missed something.”
Aaron thought about the ease with which the man had spoken, as though Taffy’s body, her fat, were public domain, open for scrutiny and comment. He knew that he had hurt her more deeply than the Korean recruiter had because the recruiter was a stranger, while he was supposed to be her friend. Still, nothing changed the fact that he was put off by Taffy in a way that seemed beyond his control, repulsed not by her size or laxness in grooming but by something he did not fully understand, though he knew it had to do with the way she positioned herself in the world.
She had told him at breakfast one morning that she taught only beginning ESL because she preferred the docility of students who did not yet comprehend what was being said to or expected of them. He imagined her as a child, the one always put in charge when teachers left the room because they knew she would report everything, caring more about this small measure of power than she did the goodwill of her peers.
Taffy dipped another chip into the cheese and opened her mouth wide to receive the whole dripping mess, then slapped her greasy hands across her thighs, thumping them like watermelons. “I’m fat, Aaron,” she declared, bits of nacho flying from her mouth. He felt one land on his face but did not reach up with his napkin to brush it away because he thought that that was what she expected him to do. He glanced at the tables around them. More than anything, he wanted her to lower her voice.
“That’s what Glenna always did,” she said. “Looked around to see whether anyone was listening.”
“Well, she probably couldn’t focus on the conversation with people listening. It’s like having two audiences, and they want completely different things. You want to know what I think, but everyone else wants to be entertained, and I don’t care to be entertainment for a bunch of strangers.”
“I do not like when people drop in,” he said.
They shifted in their seats and waited for him to explain, but he could not tell them about the hostility he felt each time his doorbell rang unexpectedly, how he pressed himself against the wall out of sight or tiptoed into the bathroom and turned on the shower, hoping that the unwanted visitor would hear it and leave. Once he had even crouched under his desk until he was sure the person had gone.
“Could straight people understand what it meant to be gay if they were too afraid of making mistakes to ask questions? He had come to prefer dealing with people who barreled in with questions that might be regarded as insensitive to those who maintained a careful distance, forming measured comments that all demonstrated the same studied sense of what was correct. Listening to his students ask questions had taught him this: that nothing could truly get better in this country until people learned to ask the kinds of questions that they had been taught never to ask.”
“Once people thought they knew you, it was almost impossible to change their minds, which meant that it was almost impossible to change yourself.”
“They were kindred spirits, Bernice said, two people more comfortable with words than people, though Aaron came to see the irony in this: words existed because of people, because of a deep human need to communicate with others, not as an end in themselves.”
“Everyone has secrets, Bill,” Aaron said. “That’s the state of being human.”
“Listen, Aaron,” she said. “You can’t make other people happy. It’s silly to try.”
“Why is it silly?” he asked.
“Because it is,” she said. “And because it will just make you feel like a failure.”
“Most people, they agreed, could either love or be loved, for these two were like rubbing your stomach and patting your head—nearly impossible to accomplish simultaneously.”
Lori Ostlund - After the parade (Scribner-2015)