Disappearing Dad Disorder
by Alexandra Kleeman, recommended by Cal Morgan
AN INTRODUCTION BY CAL MORGAN
Fiction in the past ten years has increasingly focused on the fantasy of severing human consciousness from social conventions. The wildly popular new generation of dystopian fiction ponders potential consequences of scattered populations confronting, if you will, the end of history. An experimental novel such as Blake Butler’s There Is No Year takes up this question at the scale of family — of the disappearance of an individual from a family unit.
But Alex Kleeman, in her magnificently realized You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, pulls focus even tighter, contemplating the yoke between individual body and singular self. As this story from the book reflects, not only are her characters shorn of even their names — they are, simply, A and C — but the world’s larger population has begun fleeing the demands of stress, and chores, and even love itself. And yet, she reminds us, even under such ascetic conditions, some things are irreducible. . . and perhaps the most irreducible fact of all, our physical selves, has become the foundation of an alimentary-industrial complex that feeds upon us daily.
Alex Kleeman’s work will likely stir the “gift-curse of recognition” (her typically tart phrase) within you. Happily, though, it should also have you laughing through the existential horror.
Executive Editor, Harper
Disappearing Dad Disorder
by Alexandra Kleeman, recommended by Cal Morgan
Excerpted from You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine
I had started dating C a couple years ago, during the fall when fathers began vanishing from out of their comfortable, middle-class homes. For the first few weeks, local newscasters read out the list of the newly vanished each night along with the location in which they were last seen, and it sounded like they were reading from a master catalogue of legitimate, reasonable names, names like “Peter” and “Steve.” Ted Hartwell, Matt Skofield, Dennis Galp. None of them knew each other, and there was nothing to link them except that they were all equally average. Telephone poles and store windows went white with fliers depicting men in interchangeable hairstyles, clad in polo shirts, all traces of fun leeched from their faces long ago. They wore confused expressions in the pictures selected by their family members, as if none of their kin had cared to warn them that photographs were going to be taken. Their confusion made it seem as though they had been lost for a long time, much longer than they had been gone.
The newsanchors called it “Disappearing Dad Disorder.” For months nobody knew where the dads had gone, whether they had been stolen or had stolen themselves, victims of self-napping. Then last January dads started turning up, one by one. Good Samaritans found them wandering dazed in shopping malls five towns over, malls that were not their own but resembled their own to an uncanny degree. They would return to familiar stores like the Gap and try to buy khakis with little scraps of paper that they had collected from obscure places. They sat on the mall benches and closed their eyes, waiting for someone to claim them. Often they wore clothes identical to the ones they had disappeared in, identical but fresh-smelling, like they had been laundered or even bought new in the same sizes and colors. They were confused and quiet, preferring to stare off into the distance or fiddle with a keychain instead of engaging with those around them, those who asked them gently: Are you lost? Is your family looking for you? Do you have a number we can call? When questioned about their disappearance, whether they left or had been taken, who had taken them, did they remember his face, height, manner of dress, was it someone they knew from work, from home, from the bowling league, from the auto repair shop, was it many people, an organization, a religious group, a band of criminals, a league of sexual predators, the missing dads reproduced, with slight variations in phrasing, a single sentence: Sometimes you’ve just got to be content with things the way they are.
The emptiness of C’s apartment reminded me of those missing fathers. The place was nice the way car dealerships are nice: clean, spacious, cold and full of light. He owned two of the same self-assembled couches and three identical self-assembled endtables, the cheapest model they made. They were all arranged in his living room, the couches side by side gaplessly and facing forward to the television set, the endtables pushed together in front of them to form a single, long, low table from which you could eat food if you hunched over and lowered your jaw almost to your knees. From the door, you could see the living room, kitchen, and a chunk of bedroom splayed before you like a blueprint of someplace an engineer had once thought might be all right to live in. I took a few steps forward and the bedroom came into view, a full-sized mattress on the floor with navy blue sheets and a wad of comforter. Next to it, a laptop blinked drowsily.
“Did you just move in?” I asked, hoping that he had.
C laughed. “People always ask that. I’ve been living here two years. Two and a half, really,” he added.
“Where do you keep your things?” I asked, and he gestured all around us.
C did graphic design for a small advertising agency, but this had almost nothing to do with his life. He left for work around eight thirty or nine in the morning and returned unchanged, with few memories of where he had been. If I asked about his work, he seemed surprised to be reminded of it, then annoyed. “If you want to talk about dead end jobs,” he’d say sometimes, “why don’t you talk about your own?” and I would respond to this by saying nothing at all. I pictured him as a hot air balloon, saggy and bright, tethered to the earth by three or four flimsy ropes. The person who lived in this bare, depressing, anonymously furnished apartment was about one taut rope from flying off the face of the earth, I decided.
“Are you one of those people who acts normal, but is secretly about to chuck their lives and disappear?” I asked. If that were the case, I wasn’t going to waste my time getting to know him. I knew that we’d be dating for a while at least when he laughed several times, loudly, and kissed me for what was then the third or fourth time ever.
“Yeah right. No way. Neither are you,” he said. “I’ve seen that on TV, those dads, and it is nuts. No way. Everything’s worked out great for me since whenever, I don’t have any plans to make it complicated. Besides, I’m attached to my material goods.”
What material goods? I wondered. Then I followed the arc of his arm pointing to a location across the room. He had been referring to his collection of DVDs, heaps of horror and comedy and porn, stacked together in a pile the size of a small love seat.
“Can we do something?” I asked.
C looked at me mildly.
“Like what?” he said.
I looked around us.
I went to C’s kitchen and stood staring at the open cupboards that held his library of canned goods. He had cooked beans flavored with pig fat, different soups and stews, vegetables — corn off the cob, chopped green beans, carrots sliced into bright orange circles. There were peaches and pears in syrup and, toward the back of the cupboard, canned meats with labels obscured by shadow. Blocky squares of skin-colored food on their printed labels were visible through gaps between the small towers of cans. I was impressed by how well the cans stacked together: they fit to each other the way I wished I fit to the things around me. And there were cans of fruit cocktail with peeled grapes, canned peas, Porkpot Chili, and an off-brand noodle-and-meat-sauce product that had a picture of tomatoes on its label, but no tomatoes listed in the ingredients. There were cans of tuna and cans of olives and pineapple and also mandarin oranges suspended in sugary water, the little naked pieces jostling up together in the perfect dark of the can, curled fetally against one another.
“Do you have anything fresh?” I called out to C, who was already sitting in front of the TV in the other room.
“All that stuff is fresh,” C said. “And it lasts for one to five years,” he added.
I didn’t think I could stand to eat any of it. I imagined opening a can and putting a forkful into my mouth, and I knew, whatever it was, it would be soft and yielding and would disintegrate as I pushed it around with my tongue. I wanted to eat something real and living, something tough with life. I wanted to destroy it with my teeth. I wanted it to be veal. I wished that I had eaten one of the gross hot dogs earlier, but it was too late for that. I heard a smattering of crunching sounds from the TV over in the other room.
“You’re missing Shark Week,” C shouted.
I went over and got under the blanket with him. I tucked my feet in under his thighs and looked where he was looking.
On TV, the sharks ate through a goose and a school of sardines. They ate a belly-up humpback whale that had died partway through its migration, and when it died it had rolled over and slid up to the surface of the sea, a glistening red exposure rising toward the sun and quick spoilage. Under the rows of sharp teeth, the whale came apart as if it were made of wet paper, sloughing off wads of sodden crimson that slid into the water with a liquid sound. The sharks ate seals, and other things by accident — driftwood, garbage, people. The lesson was that sharks were made to eat things. Nothing else had the immense hunger of a shark, and nothing else could back that hunger up with such efficient action. It was so beautiful that I felt like I wanted to be a part of it, though I knew it would be impossible for me to ever become a shark.
At the commercial break, there was an ad for Kandy Kakes. In this commercial, Kandy Kat faces off against his longtime nemesis Kandy Klown, a bulbous, Santa-shaped figure who consumes Kandy Kakes like it’s the simplest thing in the world, like it’s all he can do. He makes it look easy. The Klown is walking around, left leg, then right leg, slowly articulating full circles in the air, the two round hemispheres of his belly bobbing up and down alternatingly, bobbing in rhythm with the smooth fall of his feet. As he walks, the little Kandy Kakes on their tiny legs trot over to him and form a patient little queue scurrying alongside. Now the first one runs forward with a sudden burst of speed and hops straight into the Klown’s mouth. Its body is a cheery little lump visible in the Klown’s profile. Then the next one runs up and hops in, then another. Slack-jawed and dark, the Klown’s mouth is the exact shape and dimension of the Kandy Kakes that slide through it so smoothly.
All of a sudden we see Kandy Kat some distance away, watching this scene unfold through binoculars. His jaw hangs open, and out comes some drooly fluid. He turns away from the scene and grabs his head in anguish, then his stomach in anguish, the stomach distended and throbbing through the thin cover of skin. Suddenly he has an idea and rushes off-screen. We hear the sound of metal, rubber, cloth in motion, and when he runs back on-screen, he’s dressed like a Klown. He’s got the white face painted on, the ridiculous red nose, the floppy polka-dotted hat pulled over his ragged ears. With the sharp nozzle of a bicycle pump through his belly, he inflates himself until he rolls, lolling like a moored boat. He runs to the Kandy Kakes gathering and strikes a Klownish pose, arms out and swaying, listing slightly from side to side. The Kandy Kakes turn and for a moment they seem to be considering it. Kandy Kat’s big eyes grow wet and you can see he is full of hope, you can see it like you see the heart pounding inside the little cage of his body. A dry red tongue slowly rolls out of his mouth.
Then they decide. As if they are a single body, a single mind, they fall upon him. They fall upon him with their small, sharp mouths, swarming his bony frame, covering it completely, bending it beneath their weight as the Klown watches a few feet over. They tear at his costume, little bits of it are flying everywhere, and we hear a dozen wacky sproingy noises while the voice-over announces:
KANDY KAKES. WE KNOW WHO YOU REALLY ARE.
I noticed that I had been sitting with my nails pressing into my knee, and as I pulled the hands away I saw ten little semicircular segments dug in, each one a purply blue. It was like discovering that I was filled with something totally different from everyone else, a dark and dislikable substance, and I had let a bit of it seep up for the first time.
That slogan was off somehow. We know who you really are. It failed to sell anything, it wasn’t friendly, it sounded more like a threat than a promise. But then again, maybe it was a promise made to the worthy, that they alone would have all the Kandy Kakes they desired. Or a promise to those eating Kandy Kakes, that they would become good people, worthy of eating the things they had eaten. Either way, I realized I felt hungry. Or to be precise, I wanted to take something into my mouth and destroy it there.
I thought about this dad that had disappeared from his Fairfield County home while watching a football game. His wife and two young sons came back to find pretzels, Cheez Forms, and mini microwavable cheeseburgers sitting pristine in their plastic serveware, the TV chattering to nobody. Police posted his photo as far as Tibico City in the south and Coxton to the north, but nobody matching his description exactly turned up, although there were many approximate matches. A few months later, they found him living in a town more than three hundred miles away, across state lines. A neighbor had called to report a stranger living in the house next door to them, someone who seemed friendly enough but who had “a weird bent towards underreportage.” When the local police investigated, they found their missing person living in an occupied single-family home with a blond woman who closely resembled his abandoned wife, down to the navy-blue pumps and feathery bangs. The blond woman, whose husband had vanished a year earlier, was the mother of two young children, both male. She preferred not to comment on how this stranger had come to take her husband’s place or where her husband might be now. The missing father was arrested by Pleasanton police and held on suspicion of having kidnapped the woman’s actual husband and assumed his identity. It turned out Pleasanton was also the name of the town from which he had originally disappeared, a town farther north but similar in all other ways, though authorities couldn’t comment on whether this was a coincidence, an accident, or a mistake.
“Look,” C said in a very soothing voice, putting his arms around me and pulling me back down to the couch. He slung himself around me so that I was like a wrapped package, unable to move my arms. He slid his hand up to my jaw and held it there as he kissed me on the cheek.
“You’re okay,” he said, “trust me.”
For C, it was possible to get along with me even if I, for my part, was not getting along with him. It was lonely being the only one who knew how I was feeling, to not be stored in the mind of someone else who could remind you who you were. The image of a skeleton key flashed in my mind, heavy and long, made of antique brass with a wide, flat end for the thumb to push against when turning the key in the lock. The key was normal except at the functional end, where it had no teeth, nothing with which to turn the small gears of an inner lock. This was a key that could fit into any lock, a key that could never unlock anything.
C slid his arm around my back. His body was warm. He pointed to the TV.
“Look, the sharks are back. Just look at the sharks,” he murmured, holding me close.
What was at the root of Disappearing Dad Disorder? Sociologists said it was social, psychologists said it was psychological, and some religious nut said they had heard a call from God to leave behind their wicked lives. Biologists compared it to migration and to songbirds that become confused in the presence of skyscrapers. They compared them to honeybees who abandon their hives: maybe the fathers had been misled by cell phone signals, by highways, by toxins in the water supply. An American Studies professor from Cornell argued that it had to do with the breakdown of the single-earner family model upon which our common baseline for masculine worth was founded, a comedian said that all husbands were on the verge of disappearing, only there was still such a thing as a football season, and then a basketball season, and then a baseball season. And a minority voice pointed out that this had been happening forever in minority communities, but it wasn’t called a disorder until it started happening to well-off white people.
Possible explanations for the self-napping impulse were offered up in interviews with abandoned wives. Their husband was a sneaky rat and had been since the earliest days, the days when they were courting and he often “forgot” his wallet, forcing her to pay for the entirety of their meal, which, though it was only diner food — fast food, really — nevertheless added up. Their husband was well-intentioned but also a doofus, he had trouble with navigation even in their own moderately sized gated community; his absence was surely an exaggerated case of the many instances in which his sense of direction failed completely even as he continued to insist upon its quote “pinpoint precision.” Their husband had loved them very much, particularly in the beginning, but in recent years she had noticed that he had noticed that the backs of her arms jiggled when she waved hello, that there were spots that were not freckles distributed among her freckles, that her joints made loud cracking sounds when they made love, which sometimes caused him to ask her if she was all right.
But maybe the fathers were just seeking a perfect life, which when you think about it is a completely reasonable thing to do. They wanted the good things: the popcorn, the corn dogs, the plush industrial mall carpeting with its friendly geometric patterns screaming themselves in green, pink, and brick red, stretching across the concourse like a little, comprehensible fragment of infinity. They didn’t want the bad things: the pressure, the stress, the weekly division of chores by chore wheel, the homework that they thought they had done away with when they graduated elementary school or middle school or high school or business school. They didn’t want the gift-curse of recognition by those they loved and who loved them back, one consequence of that love’s durability being that they would be recognized and loved aggressively even on days when they couldn’t stand to recognize themselves in the mirror, even on days when merely remembering themselves made them sad and want to sleep. Love which made every day a day that they had to live in a handcrafted, artisanal fashion, rather than being outsourced to someone who could do it happily and efficiently for a third of the price.
They might have thought, to use a stock phrase, that somewhere out there was a way to “have their cake and eat it too.” That many of them returned to their homes months later, malnourished, dehydrated, and amnesiac, could be interpreted as evidence that there is no cake anywhere in the world to be had or eaten.
For more, read Electric Literature’s interview with Alexandra Kleeman.