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Mondays, Mondays, Mondays!

Ha-ha! I love my wife Gwen! She's the best. Today, she sprinkled paprika in my oatmeal—to prank me I bet—and I didn’t figure it out until halfway through the bowl. Imagine my shock! 

What?! Not cinnamon?

Well, she got me good, but how could I let on that she had? I slurped the whole mess down and licked my spoon. Then I dropped it clattering into the bowl.

“Mm…!” I said. “Delish!”

She turned back to the sink, to her share of the dishes, clinking and clanking. She muttered, “I thought so.”

 I said, “Thought what?”

“Oh…just testing a theory.”

 

Tip #1 for a Healthy Relationship

Surprises keep things fresh! 

 

Gwen’s always been kind of a kooky gal. She's the one who first asked me to write down my thoughts. I said, “Why? I'm not keeping any secrets!” And she said I was “suppressing” my “feelings.”

LOL! Alright, Dr. Phil! 

Recently, she’d started therapy with Julia—some lady who wore piles of hippie shawls and wooden beads around her neck ()—and apparently she’d had her mind blown. Julia told her, “Neglect is another form of abuse,” which OK might sound logical and all, but had it helped? Even a little? More like the opposite. Now she’s tight-lipped and withdrawn, and when I try to cheer her up, which it seems is all I do lately, she says, “I don’t engage when upset.”

 Well, lucky you!

Finally, I told her, “I’m not hiding anything! I just don’t think about stuff.” And she said, “Robert.” Then I had to listen. She only calls me that when things get dicey. “Robert,” she said. “I'm really trying here.”

 

Robert.

I haven’t heard it like that since I was a kid. It’s the sound of a chore I’ve forgotten to do. It’s my pick for dinner she says back to add, “Are you sure?” It’s a city I wouldn’t visit—like Sacramento…or something even worse—but in which somehow I live.

I wonder what life would be like if I was called something different—something better like, maybe, Lance McCool. That sounds alright. With a name like that, I could’ve been on MTV’s The Real World!

Lord knows I had the personality!

I could've been a lot of things.

 

How hard could it be to write down your thoughts? Well, it turns out…pretty hard!

The problem’s not the writing. It’s in having the thoughts. What do people think about? The past? …forever?

I wish I liked baseball or soccer.

Then I’d always have something nicer on my mind.

 

Q: How can fish sauce smell bad when it tastes so good?

A: Because fish don't have noses! 

 

Today, I told Gwen I’d thought of another good joke.

“Please, no,” she said.

“No, listen.”

I was lying on the carpet, as if its furry pink fibers were stomach lining, waiting to be dissolved. I haven’t been to work in days. When she asks why not, I say, “My back’s been killing me!”

It sort of has.

For snacks, I chomp on cheese bricks I keep on my belly. They’re solid and thick, really comforting. I work the wrappers down like tight pants, like candy bars.

Let’s just say I’ve been coming up with lots of jokes.


Q: Why do cows have hooves?

A: …
 

“Because they’re cows,” she said.

She was clicking her mouse intently and moving it all around, but I could see the laptop screen reflected in her glasses. She wasn’t that busy. Not even close. If you’re wondering what graphic designers do all day—surprise!—they look at Pinterest. They really love bath towels, the fluffier the better.

Who knew? Not me. I sure didn’t.

“And that’s not a joke,” she added. “That’s a riddle.”

“Wronggg!” I said. “It's because they…LACTOSE.” 

She closed the laptop carefully, touching only its corners.

“They lactose,” I said. “…lack toes?”

“What happened to you?” she said. “Why are you like this now?”

Now that’s a riddle!

 

When I was a kid, I wanted to be an inventor. Then I learned the best things had already been invented. I told my mom I'd make a flying car and she said, “That’s an airplane.” So I told her I’d make an underwater car and she said, “That's called a submarine.”

What she probably meant was that I should be practical. When I’m feeling chipper, that’s what I think—Ma was always practical. Chewing food? Count to fifty! Brushing teeth? Try two hundred! I wanted to be good so I’d try to do as she said but when I asked if an up-and-down stroke would be a one-count or two, she snapped, “Don’t be sarcastic!”

I’d hear that pretty often. In 8th grade, Coach Ferguson said I even ran sarcastic. I worked hard to pump my knees and arms the way he’d shown us—Pendulums! Levers!—but he said, “Forget it, Chen. It’s something about your…it’s just your whole body.”

Some people you’ll never make happy.

Anyways, a week later, when I was talking to her again, I told my mom I’d invent a machine that could give hugs to kids—to kids that maybe needed them? And she said, “Are you stupid? Kids don't have money! How can they buy your machine??”

It’s pretty hard to come up with a good idea—I know I’ve never had one. If I did though, if I had just one in my life, I could probably really do something with that.

 

Well, hey! Here’s a story!

Today, while Gwen was at Costco, I cleaned out the gutters and guess what I found! In all that rotting mush!

 …a golf ball!

I washed off the gunk and showed her. “Would ya’ look at that,” I said. “What do you think it was doing up there??”

“Nothing,” she said. “It’s a golf ball.”

I tried again. “How do you think it got there?”

She said, “By ignoring its best instincts and the advice of its friends.”

I had to think about that.

But before I could, she was saying, “Climbing ladders today?” And I was saying, “My back felt better.” And she was saying, “You think it’ll feel better again soon? Maybe…let’s say, by Monday?”

I stood in the hallway, breathing. I wanted to tell her something about that golf ball, something important. But she was sorting the Costco haul into the hallway cabinets. She must’ve been distracted.

 

Of course I get angry at Gwen sometimes. Who am I, Mr. Spock?? LOL no way! Trust me…this guy likes a little pepper on his chicken! 

 

Tip #2 for a Healthy Relationship

You can get angry, but don’t stay angry.

 

Listen. In a relationship, nothing’s really yours. Not even your feelings. You have to worry about other people’s feelings, and then feel those feelings, and when you finally have some of your own? You have to share them. Then you find out you've been having the wrong feelings.

So don’t bother with all that.

Q: You know what is yours, the only thing maybe?

A: Time

A (cont’d): And what you do with it

And you’d better believe it, bucko.

 

Well, well, well! Looks like I invented something after all!

It’s a Kiwi Storage Unit™! 

If only my mom could see me now! LOL

…too late to catch this train to glory though! 

 

Last night, I told Gwen I’d been writing in my notebooks. “A lot,” I said. In fact, I used the word “tons.”

She clicked her iPad off very delicately and set it on the nightstand. Then she said, “Robert.”

“Robert,” she said, “I acknowledge and appreciate your efforts to rebuild our relationship. I’d like to better understand you. I hope this path leads to clearer communications between us.”

I showed her this:

 

THE NONSENSE BROTHERS DETECTIVE AGENCY

JACK and JOHNNY NONSENSE are twin brothers who solve crimes using nothing but EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE. They’re really empathetic. They’re always saying, “O my gosh! Are you alright?” and, “Heyyy…how’re you feeeling?”

Their heads are shaped like jelly beans.

Whenever they stumble upon a promising detail or clue, they share a look and say, together, “THAT’S NONSENSE, BRO!”

 

While she was reading, I’d gotten a little hot in my skin, a mild tingling, not really spicy yet—more like I’d been singing along with my iPod and messed up the lyrics. Too bad there’s no SLEEP button on Gwen though! 

She finished the page and said, “Is this supposed to be funny?”

 “If something’s supposed to be funny,” I said, “then it’s not.”

“Robert,” she said, “I feel hurt when you—No. Are you mocking me? Is that what you’ve been doing this whole time? Just fucking with me?”

I could feel the shapes of her blowing away, like Martian sand dunes in a storm.

“I’m not,” I said, although I couldn’t really tell. If anything, I’d been mocking myself—in some twisted-up way I still had to sort out. I told her, “This is really what I think about lately.”

After a moment, she said, “That might be worse.”

 

Tip #3 for a Healthy Relationship

Sometimes the best thing to say is OK 

 

In college, Gwen was really creative. She would fill whole notebooks with her ink-and-marker drawings, these close-ups of birds perched on twigs and the structures of leaves around them. She drew realistically, with bristly little details. The paper would warp with the density of her ink, and, to be honest, it looked painful to be drawn that well—by her.

In fact, her talent scared me. She dreamed of becoming an illustrator, while I dreamed of—what? Driving a car through the sky? In comparison, what had I to offer? I was some dope who’d flip through her notebooks and say things like, “Is this a chicken?”

Why would she possibly like me?

Well, this is the mystery of life and its tragedy: she did. I’d slay her with stuff like that. “God!” she’d say, laughing. “Your jokes are so bad!

I didn’t know if they were jokes. I just knew that she liked them.

 

It would occur to me later that Gwen might be kind of a masochist. Lots of women like her were, I was learning. Maybe not “masochist” but “masochist-adjacent” like so:

Racist : Racial :: Masochist : Gwen

I don’t know how to describe it. I just know what it is. You could say it takes one to know one. 

What’s worse is I suspect she knew, even then. She’d told me a story about buying her dad some eggs and how she’s supposed to check them at the market. But what kid is checking her eggs at the market? Well, when she got home and opened the carton, she learned why she was supposed to.

I thought only super-immigrant dads would be yelling at T.J. Maxx: “Not that shirt! Look at this button! You don’t see this loose thread?”

It turned out hers was like that too.

When he opened that carton and found those cracked eggs that night, he offered his wooden ruler from his schoolboy days and told her she knew what to do. She did. She smacked her own knuckles, chanting, “You have to check the eggs, stupid! Why didn’t you check the eggs?”

I told her that was twisted. She said it wasn’t so bad. He’d taught her to say this so that he wouldn’t have to. This way, she could still be in control at least. With her dad, she never knew how bad she’d get it.

I wanted to treat her well. I really did—as if I knew how—but what I said was: “Get what, an omelet?” 

I promise she laughed. I thought she’d be bitter but, no, not at all. “O God,” she said, pressing a hand to her heart. She was practically sobbing. “Do you ever stop?”

 

JOHNNY NONSENSE is the cool younger brother. He has long black hair and black fingerless gloves. He wears a “?” shirt under his black trench coat. He’s kind of like Keanu Reeves trying to play Criss Angel.

JACK NONSENSE is the older brother. He wears blazers with rolled-up sleeves and a “!” shirt. Basically, he’s Don Johnson from Miami Vice.

The “?” and “!” shirts reflect their investigative styles.

Johnny’s always saying, “Huh? Wait a minute? What?”

And Jack’s always saying, “I got it!”

 

 

Today, I told Gwen I’d been thinking about sports. It’s great to run fast and hit things hard, so why not do that for fun? Why did we need points and rules and referees? “You touched the ball before the whistle?” I said. “That’s a no-no!”

She said, “Is this a joke or a riddle?”

We were on our way to the chiropractor’s, on the freeway, rushing along, and…hoo boy! Was I feeling a little reckless, let me tell ya! 

“Why,” I said, “would people want to do that to themselves?”

“You mean,” she said, “to each other?”

I had my seat reclined all the way back and, from there, the scenery in my window looked like perfection. The sky rolling by and not a palm tree in sight. It looked like heaven. We were flying through it all, together.

“What if somebody prefers neglect?” I said. “Is that still abuse?”

“I’m not helping you walk then when we get there,” she said.

“That’s OK,” I said. “I’m not getting up.”

 

Tip #4 for a Healthy Relationship

Sometimes the cards are how you played them and that’s how you play them.

That’s right. You heard me, friend-o. 

 

THE NONSENSE BROTHERS are brilliant investigators who have NEGATIVE IQ’s, a fact that fascinates DR. LOGIC. He’s been following them for years. He plans to capture and dissect them, to figure out how they work. He’ll subject them to a series of experiments, ever more gruesome, until…THE FINAL TEST OF IQ: the most challenging ordeal that’s ever been devised.

 

When we’re kids, we’re taught The Golden Rule: to treat others the way we’d want to be treated. That sounds logical and all, but I think we already do. In fact: that’s the problem. 

This morning Gwen told me she dreamed our house was on fire. It was burning down all around her. She stood there in the flickering red and black and you know what? She wasn’t scared. At all.

“Boy,” I said. “I know that feeling.” I shook my head. “Mondays, Mondays, Mondays.”

She sipped her coffee with both her hands on the mug.

“You know why I wasn't scared?” she said.

I wish I had a good answer like, “Love—it’s love that makes us strong.”

But all I had was my oatmeal.

I could hear how loudly my spoon was clanging against the bowl. I have clumsy fingers. I know. That’s why I can’t write cursive, why I drop so many things. My mom had told me. But what could I do? Buy new fingers?

She said, “I stood there and thought, ‘What would I save?’ If I had to run out of here, right now, right this moment, what would I take with me?”

By then I’d gotten pretty dang hot, but Gwen didn’t care. She kept talking! 

She said, “What would it be like for you if our house was burning? Would you be scared?”

She said, “Would you even notice?”

If I could finish my oatmeal like normal, I thought, I could put my dishes in the sink and walk away. But she wanted to test me.  “Name one thing you’d save,” she said. “Go ahead. I dare you.”

…so I said I’d save my golf ball. 

Then she laughed really loudly but not like herself. She sounded kind of more like my mom? 

“I found it in the gutter!” I said. “I showed you!”

But by then the both of us were yelling.

I was saying, “Why can’t we just be nice?” That’s all I’d ever wanted to be with her— nice. Like, what kind of person puts paprika in your oatmeal? Who would do that?

And she was saying that we were way past the window for “nice,” and that I needed to put in work like she had. I needed to figure myself out, and, by the way? We didn’t have any paprika, etc, etc.

By then the flames in my skull were surging higher and hotter, throwing shadows back and forth. I was having some trouble listening.

“Wow,” I said. “Is it really that hot in here?”

 

Tip #5 for a Healthy Relationship

Pay attention.

 

Looking back on those fights, I think we both should’ve been on MTV’s The Real World. We could’ve strolled into those confessional booths between scenes and told the cameras what we’d meant to say. We could show people who we really were. We had to play our roles but we weren’t so bad.

“Hello, America!” I’d say. “Geez Louise, have you got us all wrong!”

 

NONSENSE BROTHERS CASE FILE #512B: TWO KIDS

Enter: abandoned house and find: two orphans

Two suspects who ‘somehow’ slip away

 

You messed up, says the Chief

Handing down important papers

Now this’ll have to last us for weeks!

 

If it has to, I think, it will, and as for the kids

Somebody spotted them heading out of town

 

I don’t say anything to my brother but I think

That’s good. It’s good to get out while you can

 

When Gwen and I finally split, we both knew it was coming, but we still had to sort out the details. That’s what life is, I think, this sorting of details. We’re always playing catch-up with what’s happened.

On our last day of packing, I was clearing the kitchen cabinets when I checked the last shelves and you know what? We didn’t have paprika!

She was right. Why would we? To be honest, this made sense. I mean, have you tried paprika?

It’s crummy red dirt. It’s Martian dust.

You see? Who says I’m suppressing my feelings? 

 

I wanted to tell Gwen I was sorry for assuming the worst, so I headed to the bedroom, where she was splitting our books and DVD’s. She’d put on a red bandanna and white cotton gloves to work, and she was kneeling on the carpet, flipping through a book. She looked pretty. I could picture her in a garden, cutting fistfuls of daisies, or in grimy overalls, wiping her forehead with a cold can of soda. I could picture her in any commercial, really. That’s how I knew she’d be OK. She looked brave. And brave would take her far.

Then I saw what she was reading.

“Hey,” I said. “Are those my notebooks?”  They were stacked beside her: The Nonsense Brothers case files!

She looked at me strangely, like she’d forgotten who I was for a moment. Then she said, “Robert. This is fabulous.”

I practically gasped!

“Oh wow!” I said. “Thank you.”

“No,” she said, a little firmly. “I said fabulist.”

“Oh.” 

“This isn’t how it happened.” She thrust the notebook at me, as if flashing a police badge. “We’re married?”

“It’s mostly true,” I said. I dropped the trash bag full of Tupperware I’d been carrying, its lightness suddenly absurd. The plastic shells rattled. I’d basically been transporting cubes of air. “It was the best I could do.”

“You don’t even talk like this. And these case files—are these supposed to be…us?”

“No,” I said. “It’s nonsense.” In my mind, I whispered, “…bro….”

She took a deep breath and said, “Robert.”

LOL, I’m kidding! I didn’t feel any flames “gathering on my scalp” or “rising from my shoulders.” I was so far beyond that. I told her calmly, “I figured it out. They don’t solve anything. How could they? They’re a couple of ding-dongs. All they do is re­-solve cases.”

“If there’s something you want to tell me, you should probably just say it.”

“Re-solve,” I said. “Resolve?

“I mean, at this point—” she said.

“Like the Final Test of IQ…”

“Please don’t say this is some Asian thing.”

“…it’s a question.”

We stared at one another, for years, until the walls fell away and then the floor did too and she said, “Robert. How do you think this ends for you?”

I’ve made so many mistakes with Gwen, but this I think was not one of them. “Dr. Logic asks The Brothers, ‘What’s wrong with me?’”

“Robert,” she said.

“No,” I said. “Don’t you get it? He asks them, but The Brothers—”

And she snapped the book shut.

 

 

NONSENSE BROTHERS CASE FILE #445C: MISSING JIM

Enter: the smelly old house to find: the old lady and

Her mess

Her finger trembles at the rug

 

He was here! she says. A day ago! Right here!

It’s those Goddamn neighbors

I bet

Those Orientals probably ate him!

 

Gosh, says Johnny. Why would they do that?

TO PISS ME OFF!

 

In the sink: crusty plates and rusty tins

of Alpo

In the dog bowl: dusty kibble

 

On the mantle: old photos in black-and-white

ovals

Of a man—her husband, Jim?

 

Ma’am, says Johnny. How’re you feeling?

They’re killing him!

she cries.

Why won’t you make them pay?!

 

Johnny touches her shoulder

That’s not what we do

I know, she sobs

 

She lifts her glasses to pinch the bridge of her nose

I just miss him, she says. I just miss him so much

 

Well, in times like these, sometimes you think about the good old days, like when we first got together. Gwen and I would spend whole mornings in bed, just marveling at supermarket mailers. We’d hold the ads up and say, “Look at these blackberries! How gorgeous!” Or, “O my! All-Natural Boneless London Broil!”

She’d talk about having cookouts in our yard, and I’d say, “Of our own,” and she’d say, “With wooden benches, like it’s 4th of July,” and I’d say, “Yes, and there’s a baby rhino galloping on the lawn,” and she’d say, “Of course. It’s chasing butterflies.” And we’d go on and on until we were in a meadow, fragrant with wildflowers, dappled with the shimmering shadows of trees, and a slinky pangolin was up on its hind legs, clutching its plate in little prayer claws, asking for food. Its claws are grippy, scaly, and gross. It says, politely, ‘Scuse?

While we talked, we’d trade tender and helpless looks, as if hitting a cursed tennis ball back and forth, harder and harder, until I’d almost be crying, and she’d almost be crying and nobody knew what the hell was happening.

What we were really talking about, or so I thought, was the possibility of having a family together—someday.

But it might’ve been more like the opposite.

 

For a while there after Gwen and I split, I said, “That’s it for me, folks! I’m over and out!” 

I thought, “This is Robert Chen, signing off!”

Now I think: THESE…ARE THE DAYS…OF OUR LIVES….

… 

You know, all this drama could probably have been avoided. In college I wrote a really great essay about this book: Albert Camus’s The Stranger. It’s about some loner in France who misses his mom so much he starts crying when the sunlight blinds him. It gets so bright that he loses his mind, and, while he’s at it, he shoots an “Arab.”

Yep, that’s the story. It’s messed up. I know.

The strange thing is nobody in the book knows why he did it. Not even him. His society thinks he’s an unfeeling moron or a monster. Only the reader knows the truth.

That it’s more like the opposite.

“This is brilliant! A+!” …is what I thought the teacher would say. I’d thank her, and she’d tell me to be a professor, like her, not some dingus with his photo ID on a lanyard, writing pamphlets on bone density and atherosclerosis.

Well, you can guess what happened. When I got the essay back, all the comments were about clarity and citation. The word “society” had been circled about 500 times…in red.

The problem was: Who’s “society?”

 

It’s important to remember these details. It’s important to write them down. When I finally have kids of my own, probably twins, a boy and a girl, but identical, I’ll say, “Hey kids! Ever wonder what your old Pa was like?”

“Duh!” they’ll say. “Of course!” And I’ll show them. “…Tada!

We’ll read together on the couch like those family moments on TV. I’ll be steady in the middle and they’ll rest their heads against me. We’ll look like a tent, or a triangle, the strongest shape in the world. They’ll say, “Dad! You were a regular person! Like us!

And I’ll hug them tight and wink at the camera. 

“I’ll bet you never would’ve guessed!”

 

image: Francisco Muñoz


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