Empathize or Die

Summer, 2016 / No. 37
Illustration by Matthew Daley
Matthew Daley

A man is wearing a tuxedo. He is standing with his hands in his pockets, and a woman is kneeling at his feet with her arms outstretched. Where her head should be is a bunch of leaves blowing around, and her body is a giant high-heeled shoe, so the only actual human part of her are those long, graceful arms. The colours are mostly grey and black and white, except for the oversized green pear floating in the sky.

Dennis shakes his head in admiration and wonders, “What is the painter trying to say about society here? Something good? Something bad?”

He is always impressed by art that makes him think. And he’s in a restaurant! All he expected to do tonight was eat a hamburger. But now his cerebral gears are churning away, and what a treat it is to be inspired before he even orders his meal.

The waitress brings Dennis a menu. She is wearing a sleeveless top and her arms are long like the woman’s in the painting over his table. Aha! He points to the art with a dramatic flourish intended to be humorous and asks, “Is this a self-portrait? It’s very well done.”

“Are you serious?”

Her laugh sounds like an angel’s laugh from that movie he saw about angels that came down from Heaven to cavort with mortal men, which triggered the Apocalypse because of all the sin involved.

“Mission accomplished,” he thinks.

She says, “The owner’s kid did that. Thinks he’s Picasso or something. Makes me want to puke every time I see it. Can I get you a drink?”

He winks at her.

“What would you recommend?”

She says, “Uh, I don’t know, a coffee?”

He says, “Perfect,” and she goes off to fulfill his wish like a mystical fairy wearing a bikini woven out of flowers and moss she’d gathered from the enchanted forest floor. She’d had to gather a lot of flowers and moss, because she is physically gifted in the way large-breasted women are gifted, meaning there was a lot of skin to cover. And she’d had to gather it quickly, because there were evil, lecherous goblins hiding in the woods. Meaning they would get her if she was naked.

When he opens his menu, a piece of paper flutters out in much the same way as a leaf would do in a similar situation, delightfully perpetuating the forest motif he’s conjured. It says, open mic poetry night: tonight!

He’d had no idea. All he’d wanted was a burger.

Dennis has always had a strong imagination. When he was only a boy, he used to draw a whole other menu on the paper placemats they gave out at Swiss Chalet. He drew chicken drumsticks with legs and eyes and claws, and his mom would say, “Yum! I’d like one of those, please!” She’d show his work to the waitresses and they would recoil a bit but then say, “Oh, isn’t that cute.” His mom would nod and tell them that Dennis was going to be rich and famous some day, and the waitresses would smile and smile.

Then he learned how to spell, and fell in love with the alphabet. He made up lists of words he liked purely because of how they sounded. His favourite word of all time was “cream.” There was something about it that made him feel like a billion tiny bubbles were frothing up under him, keeping him buoyant in a silky, white sea.

He took Theatre Studies all through high school, not because he wanted to be an actor but because he needed the creative outlet. Even so, his teacher said he showed promise, and Dennis respected the man’s opinion. That teacher was big on trust exercises with blindfolds. Dennis’s favourite was the “tropical sensory getaway” that ushered participants through a thrilling adventure of touch, hearing, taste, and smell.

First off, he was blindfolded and led onto “the cruise ship,” which was really just a chair but by this point his disbelief had been fully suspended. The teacher honked a bicycle horn to signal his departure from port, and he was off. One of his peers ate Cheezies and blew in his face to simulate the bracing tang of a salty ocean breeze. Two of the taller guys rocked his chair back and forth to evoke the motion of the waves, and the prettiest girl in the class misted him gently with her hairspray. When Dennis arrived at “the beach,” which was really just a box of sand, he took off his shoes and socks and wiggled his bare toes with abandon. Then somebody handed him a pineapple juice box and he had never tasted anything so sweet and exotic in all of his life.

Dennis eats his burger, and it’s delicious. He savours the spongy bun, the softly yielding tomato slice, the dill pickle with its knobby skin like that of an alligator. And of course the patty itself, pebbled and slightly chewy with the flavour of distant pastures and the kind of full blue sky that made his stomach hurt with possibility when he was a young man at the beginning of his life and he used to go on car rides with his mom, and whenever they passed a farmer’s field she would shout, “Dennis! Cows!”

And though the baklava and honey balls and rice pudding on offer may be very tempting, tonight he will indulge in poetry for dessert.

“Brown hair. Jeans, a pair. Black boots. Voice hoots.”

Truthfully, the poet doesn’t sound like an owl, but Dennis is pleased with his spontaneous verse nonetheless. Maybe he’ll share it with her later, when the performances have concluded, to show his appreciation for the poem she is sharing with him and a handful of other people now.

After paying his bill and liberally remunerating the fair waitress for her service, he’d moved from his table to one of the chairs arranged around a small stage at the other end of the restaurant. When the waitress saw him sitting there a few minutes later, she rolled her eyes at the empty microphone and said, “Have fun,” and he replied, “I’m looking forward to it!” Which prompted more laughter from her that in turn gave him the same joyous bubbly feeling that the word “cream” had always elicited.

The young female poet’s offering is more of a non-rhyming love story, actually, but all the same, her words transport Dennis to a distant yet comfortably familiar locale. He can literally visualize the hay bales in the dilapidated barn she is describing, and the ravishing farmer’s daughter lying back on them with her generous spill of cornsilk hair, which means blond in a more poetic way. And the broad-shouldered farmhand lying beside her, uttering a manly grunt (which upon reflection is similar to the sound Dennis made when he finished his burger) signalling his satisfaction with either the farmer’s daughter or the pleasantly scratchy cushion of hay—Dennis isn’t sure at first, but that’s what’s called suspense.

Despite the drama unfurling before the microphone, however, Dennis senses a restlessness in his fellow audience members. Some are sighing, others are shuffling around in their chairs, and several are indiscreetly checking their mobile devices instead of enjoying the sheer entertainment right here in front of them.

Meanwhile, he is trying to pay attention to the engaging tale being spun from this woman’s fetching red lips, speaking words that she herself wrote in an act of sheer invention. Literature! He is completely invested in the raw emotion being splattered onstage, even though apparently it’s not quite up to snuff for the majority of this gloomy crowd.

He himself prefers to have fun and roll with life, and if he spontaneously wants to go out for a burger or even pizza, he’ll do it. And if a nice-looking woman comes in and orders an extra large with pepperoni, mushrooms, and double cheese while he’s sitting down to enjoy his evening slice, he might say, “There’s a free table over here, Miss.” And she might give him a funny look and say, “I’m getting an extra-large pizza to go, but thank you.” Then he says, “Hey, a big appetite is attractive on a woman.” And she says, “It’s for my family, at home,” and waits by the cash register until her food is ready.

“Suit yourself,” Dennis beams out at the sighers and shufflers and device checkers who don’t seem to realize how difficult it is to craft a tale from nothing and to create believable characters people can empathize with.

The trick is, you need to pose the question, How can I locate some fellow feeling with this individual who is outside my own realm of personal experience? Because in art, as in everyday existence, we can all benefit from stepping into the shoes of others. For example, as Dennis learned from that wise Theatre Studies teacher of yesteryear, it is possible to envision yourself as another actual human being or a fictional fabrication of one, or even as someone in an advertisement, who is really just an actual human being pretending to be someone else.

Such as the man in the poster he saw in the restroom of this very establishment, which was an ad for gum. The idea of the campaign was to have safe breath in the event a person encountered romance. “Safe” in this case meaning minty fresh after chewing this particular brand of gum, apparently, so that you would make a positive impression when you started kissing a stranger. In the ad, a man was kissing a woman with porcelain skin and dark curly hair. They were both smiling so as to convey their mutual enjoyment of each other’s breath. And, one would assume, sexual arousal as well.

So he put himself into this guy’s shoes, even though technically he couldn’t see them because the picture only showed the couple from the shoulders up. But regardless, there Dennis was, locking lips with this heavenly brunette creature, and it was snowing and he was wearing a leather jacket—a fashionable choice but not very warm so he was shivering but trying not to show it because shivering is not a manly action. The woman was wearing a red toque with a giant pompom, which he thought was stupid—such an alluring lady wearing a dumb hat like that? But he decided not to say anything because he wanted to keep her happy, and negative comments aimed at a female’s wardrobe choices are often frowned upon by said females, or so he has heard. No, no—he wanted to stay in her good graces and thereby encourage her to keep kissing him forever.

O.K., they could maybe pause to get married and have a couple of children together. And one day she would stop at a pizza place on her way home from work and order an extra-large pizza for him and the kids, and they’d all sit down at the table and dig in, and the kids would say, “Mmm, pizza!” Dennis and his wife would hold hands even when they were eating, and after they put their little boy and girl to bed they’d wink at each other, which was their code for “adult time.” Meaning he was going to crawl all over her and do all sorts of things to her, and she was going to let him.

Now the farmhand is fumbling around in the pockets of his dusty jeans—oh no, what does he have in there? A knife? Should the farmer’s daughter be afraid of her darling farmhand? How well do they really know each other anyway, after merely a few dalliances in the barn and the stables and the cold cellar? Sure, they’ve just made extremely passionate love, with nobody to witness that passion save for an errant lamb who wandered in at a crucial point and made them chuckle at its frightened bleating that contrasted its soft woolly innocence against the violent throes of their mutual orgasms.

But when you get down to brass tacks, he is a mysterious farmhand without a past who was hired by her blind and therefore overly trusting father on a whim when he showed up one day bearing a mysterious scar that remained unseen by the farmer, due to the blindness.

He is also poor. In fact, the farmhand’s Achilles heel (literary parlance for weakness) is his crippling insecurity about his finances—and O.K., if you want to get right down to it, his general mental skills, otherwise why can’t he earn a decent living? Even though he can ride a horse with his eyes closed, and we’re not talking about a gentle animal here. We’re talking the craziest steed of the bunch, who bucks constantly and has a thirst for human blood, which is unusual in horses.

But the farmhand is certainly working very hard as a farmhand, there’s no doubt about that, and in fact he caught the eye of the farmer’s daughter in the first place when he was huffing and puffing from exertion while wrangling. He’d become so overheated that he had to take his shirt off, and the daughter couldn’t help but notice all the sweat dripping down his hard muscles. She offered him a paper towel, which didn’t do much, absorbency-wise, but he appreciated the gesture all the same.

Plus isn’t everybody looking for a way to make more money these days? For instance, Dennis’s plan is to create a revolutionary on-line game where users can scan a photo of their head, which they could float around and plunk onto different bodies, such as a runway model or Olympic athlete or Dracula, or even various animals would be available.

It will be like a virtual out-of-body experience, which Dennis had last month in real life when he slipped on some ice and fell backwards onto concrete. He lost consciousness and the next thing he knew, his soul was performing the very tricky manoeuvre of hovering above his prone, motionless form. He gazed at himself and there was something important he wanted to say, but then he travelled to a whole other galaxy where the peaceful, squid-like inhabitants of a planet much like ours, only colder, worshipped him as a god.

They explained that they had the power to grant wishes and asked Dennis if there was anything he was truly in need of, deep down in his soul? And he said it would be appealing to partner up love-wise with a nice-looking lady. The aliens said, “Sure, why not?” And he was thinking, “All right, here we go!” Then boom, he was back on Earth again, lying on the sidewalk and staring up at the bright blue sky. A nice-looking woman passing by frowned down at him with concern, and he thought, “Thank you, aliens.” He was about to ask for her number but then he passed out again, and woke up alone in the hospital with a concussion. Which was where his on-line gaming idea was born.

His users will have the opportunity to step into the shoes of an ancient Egyptian pharaoh or a cheetah or hey, perhaps even a tough-yet-tender farmhand. And through the magic of social media they’ll be able to communicate with each other, such that a user pretending to be a fireman could send a message to a user pretending to be a prima ballerina. Like, “If you were dancing and your house was burning down, I would save you, but only if you took all your clothes off and started touching yourself.”

In an early brainstorming session, Dennis also came up with the character of the handsome but emotionally unavailable and frequently sarcastic Cultural Studies major he’d roomed with in university who was always banging different chicks. The scenario: You’re him, and you’re lying in bed reading some porn, when there is a timid knock at your door. It’s the girl from down the hall who wears leather shorts all the time and makes collages with found materials, which basically means garbage. She giggles shyly and asks can she sleep beside you? Just sleep, no sex or anything. And you say, “Sure, O.K. But you better make sure there’s no s-e-x, like you said.” And that funny remark causes her to laugh and makes her want to have sex with you after all. In fact, she starts begging because she really, really wants it. So eventually you decide to be nice and give it to her.

There will be an element of danger as well, such as the threat of a horrific on-line death if players do not sufficiently immerse themselves in their chosen personas, which will have to be measured by some sort of empathy barometer.

All Dennis needs now is a clever name for the Web site, and some game developers, and he’s ready to go.

Meanwhile, back among the hay bales, the author is using the skillful technique of poetic justice when the farmhand produces a diamond ring from a pocket of his tight, worn denims and asks for the farmer’s daughter’s hand in marriage. So clearly this will not be a tragedy after all, even though the farmhand could just as easily have pulled a cruel blade out of his pants instead. They embrace, and the farmer’s daughter shouts an ecstatic “Yes, oh yes!” The farmhand slides the ring onto the farmer’s daughter’s finger, and swears he will protect her forever.

“Safe,” Dennis breathes. “You will always be safe with me.” And then they kiss, obviously, because what else is there to do once a proposal has been made and accepted? Dennis closes his eyes and sinks into pure physical sensation. The farmer’s daughter’s lips are soft and malleable like the creamiest of rice puddings, her breath has the intoxicating sweetness of pineapple, and her hairspray tickles his nostrils like the finest of sea mists.

At that moment, he hears a strange and menacing combination of sounds—low groans and snickers along with a restless tapping and shuffling only partially masked by a cacophony of coughs. The source of these noises is not immediately evident, so he tells the achingly beautiful farmer’s daughter—his betrothed!—to stay where she is while he investigates.

With his lowered eyelids impairing his vision, he puts his remaining senses on high alert. His nostrils widen to sniff out the threat above the whimsical scents of straw, sawdust, and dung. His fingers scuttle stealthily over the pen he keeps tucked in his shirt pocket in case inspiration strikes—he could use it as a weapon if brute force won’t suffice. He tastes beef on his tongue, which is distracting. Didn’t he consume a romantic picnic lunch of fried chicken and cucumber sandwiches with his gal before their splendorous liaison in the barn?

“Be brave,” he urges his trembling fiancée. He will hunt down the cruel beast hissing at her from the shadows and slay it with his large, calloused hands.

Then the two of them can go back to what they were doing before she agreed to be his wife. Ha ha, O.K., sure, and then she can get started on the wedding plans. He smiles at her indulgently. He likes a woman who knows what she wants. Plus, come on, she is gorgeous.

But hold on a minute here, because there’s something weird about her head. Right before Dennis’s disbelieving eyes it’s dissolving, whirring, flapping like birds. Then the colour bleeds out of the hay bales, the chairs, the stage, and the dish of thick, luscious cream for the barn cat, and he thinks, “No, not wings—leaves.” So many of them, and all from different trees. Even though it was winter the last time he checked. Where did all this crazy autumn foliage come from?

And just when he’s beginning to suspect things may not be exactly as they seem, his beloved reaches her long, reassuring arms toward him, and applauds. And mutters something that sounds like, “Thank fucking God.

Dennis wakes up. He blinks rapidly. He looks around. He sits straighter in his chair and claps more exuberantly than everyone else. He is suddenly alight with ideas. He is on fire. The perfect title for his on-line game pops into his brain, and he is full of love for the universe and immensely grateful for the inspiration it bestows upon him every day, like a sparkling, shiny gift.

The host steps up to the microphone and slings his arm around the poet’s thin shoulders. She slumps a little under the weight, but she’s beaming.

He says to her, “That was great. You’re great. I’d really like to talk to you more about that piece later, because it really moved me.”

The poet nods and blushes until he lets her go. When she returns to her seat, several people lean in and whisper loudly to her, “That was so amazing!”

The host is wearing a tuxedo—just like the man in the painting. He is younger than Dennis, but much taller, and with a carefully trimmed handlebar moustache that gives him additional authority, plus coolness.

“I see some new faces here tonight, which is awesome. We do this every Wednesday, guys, so put it on your calendars. Big thanks to the proprietors of Athena’s Grill for providing this space for us to exorcise our creative demons. They also changed my diapers, which I guess is another thing I should thank them for. Except they also make me tell you to come early and order food first. Ideally one of the more expensive dishes, like the moussaka or the calamari dinner. Or the shrimp saganaki, which is my personal favourite. Or a burger, whatever. Just eat something to keep the old Greek people off my back, or else they’re going to zap me with their evil eye.”

“The host is the painter. And I had a burger.” Two more serendipitous details that make Dennis marvel at the intricately random wonder of it all.

“And please don’t forget to tip our lovely waitress generously, because she works like a dog.”

The host sticks his hands in his pockets and grins as the waitress walks by, but she’s very focused on balancing her tray of empty glasses.

“O.K.!” says the host. “We’ve got a great crowd here tonight so if you’ve got something special to share with us, now’s your chance.”

Dennis can hardly believe his ears. “Anyone can do this?”

“Remember—there’s no time limit, and the sky’s the limit. Anything goes. Just get up here and wow us.”

Dennis’s heart races with the thrill of a freshly minted fictional tale his mind has crafted on the spot, with barely any effort at all. The best part is the ending, which concerns the newly clarified understanding of a previous “reality” the protagonist has upon rousing himself from a deep slumber.

The host angles a palm over his eyes like he’s shielding them from bright sun, and surveys the audience. “So, who’s next?”

Dennis thinks, “I am.”

He raises his hand and holds his breath, and waits.

Jessica Westhead is the author of the short story collections And Also Sharks, Things Not To Do, and the forthcoming A Warm and Lighthearted Feeling. She first contributed to the magazine in 2002. Last updated fall, 2022.