Brainchildren (Part II)
“Come see this.” He picked up the cat and released it on the carpet. Trembling with excitement, Joe kneeled down again and softly flicked a bubble. It rolled for only a couple of seconds, but it was enough to get Cinnamon interested. His eyes widened and he lifted a paw. At once he was on his back legs, jumping like a marsupial. Cinnamon’s enthusiasm with the balls allowed Joe a deep breath. At least he knew for certain he wasn’t imagining them.
He sat, holding a bubble, while its twin rested on the centre of the table. Staring at the smoke within it, he travelled back to his deepest need: his wife. Now he had hope. He thought about the lunch at Le Perroquet. The bubble on the table glowed in a bright blue light. Joe jumped to his feet as Cinnamon crouched.
Before Joe could react, Cinnamon shot forward and hit the pulsating blue ball. Joe saw it happen in slow motion. The sphere flew off, hit the side of the fireplace and shattered into pieces. Joe’s forehead burst open, as if someone had stabbed his brain from the inside. He forgot who and where he was, but none of it mattered, he wanted the pain to stop. He was screaming with all the air he had in his lungs, but it wasn’t enough. It was the end. Joe begged for death. Fireworks exploded behind his closed eyes. Painfully slowly, it faded. Wheezing, Joe became aware of his position: he was on his knees and holding his face, though he didn’t remember kneeling. His brain pulsated. He looked up in time to see the fog, hovering over the shattered pieces of the sphere. It whispered something. Joe heard it loud and clear, as if the glass fragments were right next to him and not across the room. The whisper carried the idea of taking Amelia to the restaurant from their first date again. It flashed before Joe’s eyes at the speed of light: then it was lost.
Standing up slowly, Joe looked around for Cinnamon. The cat was trembling, his fat body squeezed under the coffee table.
“Hi, buddy… Sorry I scared you,” Joe whispered, petting the bit of fur he could reach.
He sat back down on the sofa, feeling as if a little piece of his soul had sunk into the core of the universe and left a hole in its place. At the same time, he felt something heavy in his stomach. He’d never been in that much pain before and was stunned by what he’d gone through. Joe tried to remember what the bubble had shown him, but he soon realised it was in vain. He had lost whatever scenario the bubble had given him. Joe ran his fingers through his hair. Breaking the sphere had broken one of the two ideas he had.
As a philosophy teacher, Joe was used to theories and hypotheses. He’d studied a lot and though he wasn’t particularly keen on showing it off, he had a fair amount of knowledge. Yet he’d never heard of a phenomenon like this. His ideas were taking a physical form. This experience made him interesting, worth studying even! Of all the opportunities he’d been given, this one was perhaps the most precious. His hands were sweating again. The image of the fame the bubbles could bring popped up as a drop on his thumb. Contrary to what Joe had believed, it seemed there were still some possibilities for his life.
Cinnamon squeezed himself from under the coffee table and glanced at the second bubble on the dining table. Joe followed the cat’s eyes, got up and held the bubble to his heart:
“No way! You want Jessica, right? If you break the ideas, I’ll be all you have. And we both know how shit I am at taking care of you.” Joe looked at the cat, almost expecting Cinnamon to deny it. He didn’t.
Joe contemplated the object in his hand. He felt a sudden rush of love for it. It whispered confidence into his brain. Now that he knew what they were, he couldn’t help but thank them. He caressed the spherical bubble lovingly. They were here to show him how to improve his life, to remind him that there were always options. And they would help him get his family back. One last chance.
The bubble in his hand reminded him of the lost one. He cleaned the shattered glass, mourning the loss. No matter how much he tried to remember, the thought seemed to slip between his fingers. It was so close, yet impossible to reach.
Joe decided to lie down on the sofa watching the bubble growing on his thumb.
“Why? Why me?” he whispered. Glancing out the window, he noticed the sunrise. It had been a long night. Joe positioned his hand on his side, making sure the bubble would be safe, and allowed his eyes to rest.
It was one in the afternoon when Joe woke up. The living room was suffocating and warm. Joe rubbed his eyes and turned. It sounded as if he was sleeping on a sofa made of crystal. Carefully, Joe sat up, trying not to smash the bubbles. It hadn’t been a dream. The sofa and the floor were covered in round bubbles he’d created in his sleep. Cinnamon was perched on top of the bookshelf, looking down with superiority. Joe needed to keep the bubbles safe, the memory of the pain from the day before was still very present. The scenario he’d lost hadn’t returned to him, so he had to keep the new ones safe if he planned on getting back together with his wife .
As he packed them carefully into the cardboard boxes Amelia had left behind, he looked at each individually. He would touch them on his forehead and they’d invade him in smells and colours of a distant fantasy. Some encouraged him to travel more: he saw his family, in scarves and gloves, biking around Amsterdam. They rode together, smelling the snow and hints of marijuana, enjoying the beauty of the canals. For a few seconds, he sat by the Douro River, enjoying a glass of Port wine, holding Amelia’s hand and ignoring Jessica’s eye roll. He could hear the cheers of football fans gathered around a TV and smell sardines and bread. Another wanted him to take Amelia to Venice. Another suggested he scheduled more things with Jessica. The one next to it urged him to take Jessica Christmas shopping around the Grand Place. He watched her obsess over The Grasshopper, the toyshop she was too old for but simply couldn’t resist. He smiled, watching her run from the sheep to the bear and settle on the round-faced monkey she sometimes resembled. Every time he thought about the scenario they portrayed, they’d glow light blue. They were so fragile and beautiful; he couldn’t believe they had appeared from within him, created by the mere thought of them. The last time he’d been that amazed, he was holding his new born daughter in his arms. Being in their presence also seemed to inspire the creation of more. This explained why he’d created so many in his sleep: each scenario seemed to multiply into a web of more specific scenarios stimulated by the initial one. His palms were permanently sweaty and his mind overflowing with images of family.
When Joe started reminiscing on the times he’d taken Jessica Christmas shopping, he noticed the golden glow behind him. Most of the bubbles he hadn’t packed glowed in gold instead of blue. Joe picked one and pressed it against his forehead. He smiled as a memory filled his mind. A four-year-old Jessica stood on her tiptoes, tongue tucked between her teeth, dipping strawberries under a glossy fountain of molten chocolate.
This was a problem. Joe couldn’t afford to lose memories. His smile faded. He packed the balls with the memories even more carefully. Now, he had two cardboard boxes full of brittle glass bubbles that contained a mix of memories and future possibilities. He glanced at the top of the bookshelf. Cinnamon was observing him. Though the cat hadn’t done anything during the night, Joe was sure he saw a hint of challenge in Cinnamon’s eyes. So he stored the boxes safely in the home office and closed the door. It was time to call Stephen.
“Hey man, I was getting worried,” Stephen’s voice answered at the second ring.
“Can you come over?” Joe asked.
“Bar? I could use a whisky,” Stephen suggested.
“Can’t.” The sweat in Joe’s hands turned to drops again. “Please come over?”
He glanced at his reflection in the mirror: his olive eyes were shiny and his forehead glowing with sweat. Stephen arrived twenty minutes later. By that time, Joe had a sofa full of bubbles telling him how to improve his career – go back to studying? Finish the essay he’d been wanting to publish? Change paths? – And Joe felt overly energetic.
“Do you remember when I said I wished you could write me a life script?” Joe asked as Stephen strolled in, “Turns out I don’t need you to do that anymore.”
“Really?” Stephen looked around apprehensively, “So?”
Joe walked to the sofa and presented the sea of bubbles with an excited “Ta daaa!”. Stephen looked at the sofa, then at Joe, then back at the sofa.
“Yeah. Comfy sofa, you’ve had it for years,” said Stephen.
“No, no.” Joe picked up a bubble carefully, “After I left the bar, I had an epiphany. Then these started coming to me! They have my thoughts! I can finally organize them, I have a shot at getting Amelia and Jess back.”
Joe waved the bubble in Stephen’s face. For some reason, Stephen looked confused. Maybe, Joe wondered, Stephen should see the memory bubbles. Those were easier to understand. Joe gripped Stephen’s arm and dragged him to the office. He presented the two cardboard boxes on the desk, one with a golden glow, and the other with a blue glow. Joe picked up a memory and showed it to Stephen.
“These have memories inside. See how they glow in yellow?” Joe looked hopefully at Stephen.
“So… Boxes of nothing? Should I be seeing something here?” Stephen tilted a box and peeked inside. Joe jumped forward, but he was too late. A sphere slipped from the box and shattered. It was as if the glass had shattered in Joe’s head and sunk into his skull. Even though he thought he hadn’t forgotten the pain, it was even worse than he remembered. He opened his eyes when the fireworks behind his eyelids extinguished. A scream was dying in his throat and his head throbbed. Stephen kneeled down, their faces at the same level.
“Are you okay? What happened?” Stephen asked anxiously.
“At least it wasn’t a memory,” Joe mumbled. Another piece of his soul had disappeared and left a hole in its place. “It’s okay. You didn’t know,” he said to Stephen.
“Joe, buddy.” He helped Joe stand up and rested a hand on his shoulder, “ Do you feel alright?”
“Don’t tell me you can’t see them,” he insisted. Cinnamon wandered in, his yellow eyes on the boxes.
“There’s nothing to see,” Stephen said quietly. He looked around as if the room was infected, hand still on Joe’s shoulder.
“The cat sees them!” Joe squealed, pointing at Cinnamon.
“Listen, this isn’t about the cat. It’s about you not being able to get over Amelia leaving. You need to let go.” Stephen wasn’t one for sugar coating, but this one hurt. Suddenly, something clicked inside Joe’s head. He shook Stephen’s hand away.
“Oh, I see.” Picking up the cat, he walked out of the office.
“What?” Stephen followed.
“That’s what this is all about. Amelia. You think you’re better for her.” Joe dropped Cinnamon on the sofa and turned to face his best friend, “That’s why you want me to move on! “The world is your oyster!”,” He waved his hand in the air, faking a deep voice in a poor imitation of Stephen. “Is that why you’re pretending you can’t see them?”
“What are you talking about?” Stephen looked confused, which only made Joe angrier. Stephen was a good actor.
“You think you are a better fit for her, don’t you?”
Joe couldn’t remember the last time he’d been this angry. He was trying so hard not to let his anger out and punch Stephen he feared he might have cracked a rib. His palms started sweating and a drop grew on his middle finger. Everything made sense. Stephen’s discouraging advice, his insistence that Joe should move on… Stephen looked at Joe with goggled eyes. The bubble grew at incredible speed and floated to the ground. Joe bent down to pick it up.
“You’re not making sense. Joe, I don’t want Amelia. Come on, man, you know that! I told you to move on because you’re not a good couple anymore. Amelia won’t change her mind and you need company.” His eyes showed more pity than he intended, as he looked between Joe’s face and his hand, clutching the bubble.
“I don’t need company.” Joe unconsciously glanced at Cinnamon.
However alone he might have felt, now he had a different mind-set. He didn’t need anyone who carried a dangerous hidden agenda. He pictured punching Stephen, hard, right on the nose and the bubble in his hand glowed blue.
He put the bubble down on the table, then walked to the door and opened it:
“Get out,” he said. He needed Stephen to leave. That was all it took to avoid the tempting punch.
“Seriously? You’ve got to be going nuts, mate,” Stephen said, without moving. Joe was getting impatient. He marched towards Stephen, put both hands on his chest and pushed him hard. Stephen stumbled backwards a couple of steps but kept his balance.
“I’m not your mate,” said Joe.
Stephen stomped past him and slammed the door.
Joe was alone once more. Except this time, he didn’t even have Stephen. He didn’t want him either. It wasn’t a matter of pride. Joe knew Stephen plotted everything, he’d been trying to sabotage Joe’s chances of succeeding from the second Joe asked him for advice.
As a consequence of the unfortunate encounter, Joe was now aware of one more detail regarding his bubbles: they could be bad too. So far, all he’d seen was pretty scenarios of moments with his family, but the new bubble he’d created was different. That punch on Stephen’s nose, the punch he so deserved, was right there inside the bubble. Joe watched it on a loop for a few seconds and then stored it away. It was curious how vivid – and strangely satisfying – the scenario was.
He strode around the living room. It was time to learn to deal with the bubbles. He had a meeting scheduled with Amelia and Jessica in a couple of days, to organise that year’s Christmas. Joe did some research about the bubbles. He Googled them, but nothing similar came up. However, there were suggestions on meditation and relaxing exercises. It couldn’t hurt to try.
He learned that massaging his eyebrows was effective, as well as holding his thumbs inside closed fists. The same couldn’t be said for meditation: sitting down and emptying his mind was easier said than done. After a little incident with an outburst of bubbles while he was trying not to think at all, Joe put away the bubbles and decided it was enough meditation for one day. He tried herbal tea, different genres of music, reading, and TV. By the end of the day, he knew what helped and what didn’t.
Joe’s theory was that the only way to stop the sweat from becoming bubbles was to stop thinking about the trigger. But it was a trigger for a reason. Every night, Joe would lie in bed, trying to evict Amelia from his mind. Still his thoughts would float back to her: the way she held the back of his neck when they kissed, her soft pale skin, the spot where her lower-lip piercing used to be, the soft arch on her back and the freckles on her shoulders. He would daydream, thinking about kissing her, on the smooth curves of her neck, on her collarbone. The house didn’t help. Whenever he tried to avoid creating more bubbles, it seemed to call upon daily memories – Amelia drinking her wine at the table, pinkie sticking up, or Jessica watching TV with Cinnamon on her lap. Soon, Joe started running out of room. He ordered new cardboard boxes, packed up the bubbles and put them away wherever he found the space: the office, the guest bathroom, the attic and inside every wardrobe they owned. But they were never ending, and the same couldn’t be said for his house.
On the morning of the meeting, Joe woke up early. His room overflowed with bubbles: on the floor, the bed, the bedside tables, there were even piles of them in the corners. He breathed in that familiar suffocating warmth that came with the excess of bubbles. Joe cleared them away, hiding them in the wardrobe in Jessica’s room. After ten minutes of relaxing exercises, Joe got dressed, fed Cinnamon, filled the pockets of his overcoat with plastic bags (just in case), and left for the metro to Merode. He wasn’t sure how he felt: he was nervous about seeing Amelia and Jessica. He also worried the bubbles would show up. He’d decided to keep them secret for now, until he figured out which plan to approach first. Either way, he felt an uncomfortable pressure in his stomach, as if his organs had switched places, and kept his hands in his pockets, fists closed around the thumbs.
Joe came up the stairs out the metro station and looked around. Surprisingly sunny for November, he thought. He glanced back. The Rue de Tongres seemed more uphill than he remembered: he observed the commotion in all the shops, then quickly returned to reality. If there was ever a day he couldn’t allow himself to drift off, this was it. He looked away from the street he’d been observing to Avenue de Tervueren, the perpendicular avenue the metro station led to. On the other side, he could see the restaurant where they’d planned to meet. His heart was racing. They used to go there when Jessica was young. Her favourite puppet show was outside the park, visible from the restaurant. The Cinquantenaire Arch was noticeable in the distance. This place gave him goose bumps. He waited until the tram passed and crossed the street. Before going in, he took a deep breath and glanced up at the restaurant’s name. With a tone of sarcasm, he read it aloud to himself:
The moment Joe stepped inside the restaurant he knew he was doomed. Looking at Jessica and Amelia made his stomach twist and his hands began sweating instantly. He attempted to act normal. Amelia’s eyes were darker than he remembered. Every time she looked at him he got lost gazing into her eyes. He was distracted and anxious, but it wasn’t until Amelia mentioned Stephen that he lost it. According to her, Stephen was worried about Joe. He’d called. Joe’s feelings were mixed and incompatible: he felt both happy to see his family, and angry with Stephen and Amelia. How could she believe Stephen? He lowered his face and massaged his eyebrows, assuring Amelia he was fine. Bubbles started forming again, at alarming speed. There was no way he could hide them. So after a painful few minutes with his hands in his pockets, he mumbled he wasn’t feeling well and ran out the restaurant straight into a taxi.
Joe walked into the house and to the bar. He helped himself to a large glass of whisky and then fumbled around in the wooden boxes for anything to smoke. He found an unopened box of cigarillos and slid his finger through the slot, ripping the seal. He couldn’t believe how badly it had gone. The worst part was Stephen. Unbelievable Stephen. He lit a cigarillo, took two drags and put it out.
Cinnamon wandered in and rubbed his belly on Joe’s legs affectionately. Joe bent down and petted the cat, a gesture he didn’t recognize in himself. Cinnamon had become his only ally.
“You want to know how it went?” Joe said to the cat, his voice roughened by the alcohol, “Badly…” Joe took a seat on the sofa. “Stephen called. Told her I’m having a nervous breakdown.”
Cinnamon jumped on the sofa and looked at Joe. He had the sort of interested gaze that had Joe wondering how much a feline could understand.
“I know you don’t think I am. But Amelia believes him. They think I’ve gone nuts.” Joe rolled his eyes.
Joe needed to show Jessica he wasn’t having a nervous breakdown. He had to tell her he could win Amelia back and that he’d make up for all the mistakes he’d made over the years. He’d never take them for granted and he’d never forget that Olivia lived by the school. The bubble with this plan popped up. Only then did Joe remember the two spheres he’d collected in the taxi. He pulled out the white plastic bag. Cinnamon looked between Joe and the bag disapprovingly.
“I lost control,” Joe said, feeling embarrassed, “I know, I shouldn’t have. Don’t judge me, I didn’t mean to,” Joe sighed. “I was reminded of how things were. And there was the Stephen issue. I got so angry with all of them, I knew it was about to happen again.”
The white bag stared at him, like the incriminating evidence of a crime he was yet to commit. Joe decided not to reveal to Cinnamon the content of these particular bubbles. The judgemental look in the feline face was definitely more than he could handle. He looked at the cat and saw a question reflected in the round eyes.
“What do you think happened next? I left! I couldn’t let them see…”
He hid his face in his hands as he continued:
“I probably looked insane… What if they don’t take me back?” His voice got lost in the last words and his eyes filled with tears. Then he remembered he had new children to care for. So he pulled himself together and cleared out the bubble that had quietly landed on the floor.