The story about the equitable allocation of good things
My story is about a time in which love is taxed like income.
Jillian can’t decide what to keep; her husband, or her house. She loves both very much. Her husband is a decent guy — maybe a bit too decent, though Jillian knows it is grass-is-greener-on-the-other-side thinking whenever she fantasizes about the trash man. He makes sort-of decent money at a modest non-profit that puts up homeless people in used shipping containers.
Her house has been in her family since before Reagan. But real estate taxes just went up and she’s crunched the numbers eleven different ways. She can’t keep both.
Jillian applies to and is chosen for a television appearance on “Material Romance,” a talk show in which real people sort out such issues before a live studio audience. The host, Keema, is slick and slightly artificial looking, like a human disguised as a plastic doll.
“Well, it sounds like you have two things you love. How about your love exemption? Don’t you have that?” asks Keema in her deep, perfectly modulated voice.
Jillian frowns sadly.
“We don’t have enough stock options to qualify,” she says.
Keema shakes her head but says nothing. She’s been known to denounce the nation’s regressive tax and benefits structure in past episodes. It’s rumored that the show’s producers disapprove of her politicizing, but in fact the whole thing is a calculated act to help the more politically aware viewers rationalize their fandom.
Jillian’s husband sits like a prop on a high stool off to one side. He stares at the floor, apparently bored.
“Why should Jillian keep you?” Keema asks him. “It sounds as though this house has been in her life for quite a while — all her life, in fact.”
The husband thinks for a long moment, and the live studio audience sits in electric silence, waiting either to boo or to cheer, for this man to define the shape of justice in that moment. He is, after all, the one on trial. The house cannot speak for itself. What love we hold for things is always safe in this way.
“She should keep me out of kindness, I suppose,” he says, finally.
Keema urges him to go on.
The case he makes is good enough to get some claps. When polled, the audience is evenly torn between the house and the husband.
Jillian decides to keep the house but attempt to maintain a non-married relationship with her now ex-husband — who is named Mike by the way. It is just the sort of have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too tactic that Keema disdains, and when the host returns to them in her “where are they now” segment a few months later, she’s quick to criticize.
“Jillian’s decision is indicative of a hole that cannot be filled by any one thing, so she thinks that many things will do a better job. This is a mistake, and sadly a common one. The best poetry adheres to form. There is a word for poetry that is meaningless, that tries to be special when it isn’t,” she tells her audience.
“If she loves him, she should have chosen him. If she doesn’t, then they don’t belong together. These choices are meaningful, and must remain so, or else society will collapse into doggerel.”
(Afterwards the producers of “Material Romance” remind Keema she should avoid using such obscure language.)
Mike is more devastated than he lets on. It isn’t very attractive to be wounded, so he picks up volunteer positions to keep himself busy each time he and Jillian reach their monthly cap of unmarried time together.
On weekends he conducts a small, primary-colored train that chugs a slow loop linking the ghetto to the children’s museum, the library and the park. The kids who ride his train are all silent and studious, not quite weened off the behavioral cocktail that helps them defy the devastating gravity of the rough neighborhoods they’re escaping. The dirty, empty streets of those neighborhoods are like the sets of post-human fantasies, and Mike can’t help but wonder if the parents are all dead and the children taking care of themselves.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” he asks one young bald boy on his second day on the job.
“A petroleum engineer,” the boy states flatly, and then turns away from Mike to find his seat.
Mike also takes up drinking too much late into the night.
His new hobbies collide when, one day, he fails to see a dog cross the tracks directly ahead. The dog splatters ineffectually, but its bespoke tag, made of black tungsten and harder than diamond, falls to the iron rail in exactly the wrong way.
The Children’s Derailment, as it became known in subsequent years, kills twenty-seven children and maims forty more. Mike loses an arm, an eye, and is in a coma for two months.
Meanwhile, Jillian knows she’s made the wrong decision sometimes, and knows she’s made the right decision other times. Keema’s criticism, relayed to her by that bitch Maria at work, haunts her. She worries there is deep truth to it that she can’t bear to accept.
When they are together, Jillian feels that she and Mike make up the whole universe between them and that nothing outside of that space matters. It concerns her. She orders books on the subject and learns all about intentionality, awareness, pragmatism, and something called modulated autonomy, as coined by a psychologist named Neil Spiggart.
“We are only in control of who we bring into our lives. Choose carefully,” writes Spiggart.
One day, a few months prior to the Children’s Derailment, Jillian decides to try having an affair with a man named Zeebon. He is a coworker of hers, almost ten years younger, still a kid, with long brown hair and sharp features. On their first date he plays piano for her and convinces her she wants to make love against the floor to ceiling window in his high rise apartment. They continue to meet, and Jillian wonders if excitement alone can lift her out of the irrational bind she shares with Mike.
The Children’s Derailment is so horrifying, when it happens, that Jillian is at first unable to visit Mike in the hospital. Then it comes out that he might have been slightly intoxicated when the accident occurred and press mass outside his room. A webcam is placed in Mike’s room and the world watches him sleep, filled with deep hatred for the man who may never wake up to stand trial for his atrocities. Then one of the homeless women he helped make a home for comes forward to accuse Mike of rape. He raped her in the storage container his non-profit provided for her, on the very day she signed the papers. This is quickly proven to be a lie. As it turns out the storage containers are rigged with cameras themselves — part of an elaborate agreement struck with the DEA — but national sentiment is very poisonous to sleeping Mike. Where there’s smoke there’s fire, after all. No one can find the data on his blood alcohol content, and 27% of those who know the story still believe him a rapist.
Justice is clear. Jillian finds herself hoping he never wakes.
Zeebon sees his chance. He proposes to Jillian on a ferry crossing the bay. They can afford to be married because he makes more money than Mike. Also, millions of people do not hate him.
The sun is setting and Jillian feels as though the world may be a disc and not a globe. She has never seen the curvature of the earth, after all, not with her own two eyes. Some kind of faith scaffolds even the most rational mind. Her heart is a paper shape in her chest.
She goes to the hospital and sits down beside Mike, who is like a steampunk nightmare at this point. He cannot breathe on his own, and the doctors aren’t sure when he’ll wake up.
“Does it matter?” one of the doctors asks. She’s probably on a similar cocktail as the inner city kids. To tamp down the existential hopelessness. There’s paperwork you sign on your way into the hospital that legally binds you to forgiving doctors for what they say.
Jillian sits down beside Mike and takes his hand in hers. It is warm, and real. And she remembers the things that they did together, which were also real.