Dena walked into her dining room with a simple brown box and placed it on the edge of the table near her husband’s plate. It was large enough to hold a layer cake, but the guests gathered at their dinner party had already been served dessert. The object inside the box was a surprise, an after dinner past time, a game of sorts for them, but one that held so much promise for the world.
She bobbed up and down at the knees after setting it down, like an excited schoolgirl, not a woman near forty, and she smiled with eyes wide as she began to explain. “Joaquin has a friend in Seattle who’s an inventor. Little machines and stuff. She likes to send us things to test out, to make sure they work the way she thought they would. I guess you could say we’re her guinea pigs. We’re usually sworn to silence, but she has her patent pending for this one already, and she’s curious to see what we and our friends have to say about it.”
Joaquin beamed across the table at their guests, over the coffee cups and the dessert plates with half-eaten slices of pound cake garnished with custard sauce and slices of strawberries. His wife moved to open the top of the box, but he touched her hand and motioned for her to wait. She sat down again by her own plate and listened as he spoke. “Andie’s come up with some cool things before, maybe not everyone’s cup of tea, but still great things. But this one — she’s outdone herself this time. She’s still wondering about it, but her husband and family, and us — we’re all sure she’s going to be famous for this. And rest assured, it’ll be fun, and it’s not dangerous. Andie wants us all to know that she hasn’t used anything like microwaves, or whatever that is in cell phones that we’re supposed to be careful about. She’s not even completely sure why the components make it work the way it does instead of the way she was going for. She just knows that they do. She calls it, The Comprehensor.”
Joaquin stood up and opened the box. He drew out a large, hard acrylic, grayish cap that looked much like a smoother and less angular sort of bicycle helmet, and put it on his head. He stretched out his arms and said, “Ta-daaaa!”
Some of his guests laughed outright. Some twittered about how ridiculous he looked in it. Dena was smiling, too, as she shushed her guests and said, “Come on, it’s what it does — not what it looks like.”
Joaquin removed the box from the table and set it on the floor by the wall, then he took the cap off and set it beside the plate in front of Dena’s sister, Vicky. “To help illustrate what The Comprehensor does, Dena got your mom’s recipe for Blackberry Dumplings, and made some to augment our meal.”
Vicky looked as if she had just smelled something odd. “Excuse me?” she said.
“I know, I know,” Dena said as she stood up again and came round to Vicky’s seat at the table. “You were the only one in the house who hated Mom’s Blackberry Dumplings, but trust us.” She picked up The Comprehensor and said to her husband, “We’ll get this on while you go get the dumplings.” She paused, smiling at Vicky and holding the cap in her hands. With her eyes, she asked for her sister’s permission. Vicky looked perplexed but sat still and said nothing as her sister gently placed The Comprehensor on her head.
Joaquin came back with a small plate of the dreaded dessert, putting it next to Vicky’s plate of pound cake. “It’s worked like a dream every time we’ve used it, but if it doesn’t this time, you’ve at least got the pound cake to make the flavor go away.”
Vicky was tight-lipped for a moment, then said, “I take it that this thing is supposed to make the Blackberry Dumplings taste better?”
“Yes,” said Dena, “because I’m next to you, and I like them.”
“I see a practical joke coming on,” Vicky’s boyfriend, Bill, said as he laughed. “I can’t just sit by and let this happen. Don’t eat it, Vicky!”
Dena stopped smiling. “I would never do something like that. It’s just easier to explain what it does if we show you first. It’s worked every time.”
Vicky shot a quick look at Joaquin, and he stopped smiling, too. The three of them were the only ones who seemed to have lost touch with the humor of the situation. Before the uncomfortableness took complete hold of the room, Vicky turned to her sister and said, “Swear.”
Dena put a hand over her heart, then lifted her palm in the universal sign.
Vicky lifted a spoonful of the sweet dumpling with blackberries, closed her eyes, and put it in her mouth. Throughout the room, there was a quietness broken only by prickly anticipation and breathy snickering as everyone waited for whatever came next.
“What the… ,” said Vicky. She chewed, then swallowed. “This is a joke. What’s in this? How did you make it taste good?”
The room came alive again as everyone began to speak at once.
“Wait. What ...?”
“It’s a joke, right?”
“How does it do that?”
“Is that really the Blackberry Dumpling dessert she hates?”
“Okay, somebody explain what just happened!”
Dena caught their attention as her sister finished the plate of dumplings. “That’s what it does. The Comprehensor helps you understand what another person feels, as long as they’re physically close to you, like I am to Vicky right now. She can taste how good I think Mom’s dumplings are.”
Bill watched Vicky use the spoon to scrape her plate clean, and struck by the sight, he turned to Dena, “She’s sitting next to me, too. How can I make it happen with me?”
“You have to precipitate it somehow,” Dena answered. “That’s why we used the dumplings. Try asking her a question, or just mention something you feel strongly about.”
Vicky stopped eating and looked expectantly at Bill. She waited for him to think of something.
He smiled, then his smile faltered as he looked down at what remained of his own dessert. Softly, he said, “The Three Stooges.”
There were chuckles around the table, and though his skin was the color of a golden brown caramel, the blush in his cheeks could still be seen.
Vicky took his hand under the table, and leaned into her boyfriend, looking him in the eye as if she’d seen something wonderful for the first time. “The Three Stooges are funny!” she said, her excitement clear to everyone. “And watching them is like being very young again, when life was simpler.” She giggled and took off the cap. “Now you try.”
Joaquin was beaming again, and the dining room was filled with sounds of excitement and the murmur of imminent possibility. In turn, they tried the cap, to have someone understand why they felt what they felt, to know that their point of view would be understood, even if later it wouldn’t be agreed with — it would at least, for now, for always, be understood.
After nearly an hour, the cap came to the last friend at the table, Annette. As she stared at it in her hands, the others wound down again as they had for each of them, quieting as the focus shifted to her, waiting for her to take her turn. She lifted her chin and sniffed as she turned the cap around in her hands and finally placed it on the table.
“What’s wrong, Annette?” Joaquin asked. “Don’t you want to try it?”
She looked around the room at the others, and said, “Really? You’ve got to be kidding. You should all have seen yourselves. This thing is so ugly. I wouldn’t be caught dead in it.”
Joaquin searched her face for something, anything to help him as he struggled to understand, but she simply smiled as she scooped up the last bite of her second piece of cake. He had known this woman through her friendship with his wife for much longer than the ten years he and Dena had been married, yet he felt unprepared to ask her what felt like a very personal question. He stammered as he considered his approach, his heartbeat growing aggressive, pounding inside him like a stranger trying to get out. He wanted to slide away from the moment to a calmer space where there was no ambiguity and no search for an answer, but especially among friends, an answer was needed. After a few awkward attempts, he settled on a question. “Are you… afraid of the cap?”
Annette’s expression changed to one of confusion. “What?” She leaned forward as she repeated her question into Joaquin’s eyes, “What?”
He tried again. “I was… I mean, of course, it’s your decision, your choice… but I was just wondering if… well, it can’t really be what the cap looks like. There must be something else. I… I’m not asking you to elaborate on anything personal. It’s just that we’re all friends here. I was just wondering if there’s another reason.” He tried to look pleasant, to look different from the way he felt inside. Absently, he picked up The Comprehensor, held it in his hands and wondered why he couldn’t stop them from shaking. Annette raised an eyebrow as her expression deepened, and Joachin felt the need to go on. “I just mean… you wouldn’t want us to think that you were, were…”
Bill interjected. “Shallow?”
Vicky’s raised eyebrows appeared to echo Bill’s finish to her brother-in-law’s query, even as she put a hand on Bill’s arm under the table and gave a gentle, quieting squeeze.
Joaquin couldn’t cover his embarrassment as Annette looked around the table again, uneasy this time, yet defiantly so. “Excuse me?” She stretched the phrase out for effect and waited for a response.
She had come with her fiancé, Ryan, who had put on the cap and then felt how important it was to Joachin to have a nonconventional lawn of native plants. He remembered how good it felt to internalize the ecological impact of Joachin’s decision, rather than think of it only as a peculiarity to poke fun at. Now he sat beside Annette, staring at her, just as curious as the others about what she meant. He said softly, “Honey, the way you said it was kind of insulting to the rest of us.”
“Insulting?” she said, raising her voice. “He just insulted me.” She turned to Joaquin. “I’ve been sitting here, bored while you all go on and on about this thing. I didn’t try to stop you from having fun, but now I’m a liar because I don’t care about this parlor trick, this weird machine that makes people pretend they can read minds? I don’t want to play the stupid game, so you call me a liar?”
Dena had been quiet until now, searching the room as the discomfort wore on her. She’d examined patterns in the wallpaper, the amount of wine left in each person’s glass, the expressions on her friend’s faces, and then the empty dessert plate in front of her. She fidgeted with her glass, then smoothed out the nearest section of organic cotton tablecloth with her hand until long after the wrinkle had gone. “It’s not really a game,” she said as she found her voice. “And nobody’s questioning your right not to do something. We just don’t get what you said. We’re asking you to talk to us and not dismiss us.”
Annette shook her head. “What’s not to get? I said what I meant. You don’t think it’s ugly — okay fine. But you don’t get to call me a liar, or… what did you say?” She turned back to Bill and pointed her finger at him. “Shallow? Like I have to care about that thing? Like there aren’t some actual important things in the world to think about instead? What the hell is going on here?”
“What about the possible good the cap could do,” Dena answered, “with a lot of those important things?”
Annette sniffed and shook her head at Dena’s question. “You’re talking about an ugly thing that sits on people’s heads and does weird magic tricks. Can you even hear yourself?”
“It’s not a magic trick, it’s a machine. And I understand if you don’t want to try it, but it’s like you can’t even see the possibilities of it.” Dena’s struggle for words made her talk faster as they came. “You’re not even arguing with us about the merits of it or what you think is wrong with it. You’re dismissing it completely as if you actually don’t understand it,” she said. “Instead of insulting us, why don’t you talk to us about what you really think. I thought we were all friends here.”
Annette began to shout. “You’re all acting like this is seriously important or something! How could this be important? It’s just a game. If you want to know what someone’s thinking, ask them.”
Bill spoke up again. “What about when it’s not that easy?”
Once more, Annette looked perplexed and angry at the same time. “Then you don’t get to know.”
“That’s the point of the machine,” Joaquin said. “Maybe sometimes, with permission, you can know.”
Annette steeled her eyes, the corners of her mouth set at the beginning of a smirk. “That’s the same way things are without that thing. Like I said: the machine is stupid. The person who doesn’t want to play doesn’t have to say a thing. And the one wearing it will just look like an idiot.”
Dena looked incredulous. “What if… what if it could be used someplace like the United Nations? If there was a dispute, the representative of a country could ask for permission to use the cap for clarity.”
Now Vicky chimed in. “They wouldn’t have to agree, but at least they could see the other point of view. It could work — unless the person you ask just doesn’t want to be understood.”
“The U.N.? Oh, come on.” Annette gave out a loud sigh, throwing up her hands and leaning far back into her chair. Catching sight of The Comprehensor again and staring at it for a moment, her attention returned to Joaquin. “Okay. Since everyone’s so sure this is the best invention in the world, and that I’m some kind of liar, put the damn thing on and ask me what I think.”
Joaquin hesitated. “If you don’t want to, none of us wants to make you. That’s not the point.”
“I’m tired of this, Joaquin. It’s so insulting. I just want to go home. But not before you all stop calling me a liar and realize that you’re the ones with the problem, not me.” She folded her arms after the challenge and waited.
Joaquin closed his eyes for a moment as everyone watched. He wanted a reprieve but couldn’t find a way out of it. When the cap was on his head again, he turned to Annette and asked, “Why would you rather not try the Comprehensor?”
Annette straightened in her chair and spoke slowly at Joaquin. “I think it’s ugly, stupid, and ridiculous. It doesn’t make any sense and it isn’t fun.” She raised her eyebrows and tapped her fingertips on the table, watching as he removed the cap and set it down. Then she raised her fingers and wiggled them in the air at him like a sorcerer, mocking him with the serious tone of a newscaster, “So what did the marvelous ‘All-Seeing’ Comprehensor pluck out of the air to say about me?”
Joachin took a moment to compose himself before he answered her. “It let me know that you said exactly what you think. That you honestly don't understand what use The Comprehensor could be to anyone. That you have no idea how to begin to understand it.”
“Oh, so it didn’t say that I’m a liar? Isn’t that amazing?” She rose from her chair. “We’re leaving now, Ryan. Time to leave the children to their ridiculous toys.”
Her fiancé put his napkin on the table and got up to follow her. He spoke softly to the others, “I wish I knew what to say.” They all heard Annette’s footsteps in the living room, then heard the front door open and the click of her shoes on the wood porch. Ryan added, “I’ll try and talk to her. I’m sorry.”
“No, please don’t worry about it,” Dena said. “It was good to see you tonight. Thank you for coming.”
After the two had gone, the remaining friends were left with their knitted brows and truncated expressions of disbelief as hesitation morphed into reticence, then became shocked silence and a polite refusal (with a veneer of fear) to discuss what had just gone on. Annette’s words (her thoughts and their effects) hung in the air multiplied by millions — by the number of dinner parties possible among all the groups of friends in the entire world. All those people, from all walks of life, throwing monkey wrenches into so many situations, leaving impact craters as they go. All that wreckage left to be sorted out by others at some other time, in some other setting, in some other way.
Soon a familiar path was found out of the maze. “More dessert all around?” And the hosts led their guests back to conversation and a more natural wind-down to an evening with friends. Even so, it ended faster than usual, with the unshakeable thickness of something unpleasant clinging in the air.
Joaquin and Dena decided to wait until the next day to tell their friend in Seattle how delighted most of their friends had been with the cap. They went about the business of cleaning up and putting things away, and later, while moving through the quiet progression of readying themselves for bed, they began to examine why, underneath, the uneasiness continued for them, chilling everything and threatening like a slick carpet of ice.
They talked late into the night, searching for words they didn’t know yet, but felt, heavy and lingering, creeping into the comfortable space they’d made in their lives. Unwillingly, they examined those things that attempted to shut down openness, knowledge, and true decency. With their eyes open, they stopped asking pointless questions about why this or that defeat happened in the world in the face of so much hope. They identified the elemental misunderstanding (and the refusal to understand) that clung in the air around them, around humans everywhere, impeding all that was necessary, blocking productive discourse, holding it down like weights.
And once they had forced themselves to look at all this, in the dark of night, in the fleeting comfort of their bedroom, they decided after all to remember the story of Pandora’s box and the last thing it held. Battling the world’s difficulties without hope in one’s pocket, was no path to a future they could comprehend, so they held it tight. They hoped their friends could do the same.