"Try saying 'open sesame,'" she offers helpfully. "Or 'open, sez ME!'"
"Oh, mother," I say, getting frustrated. "The wall slides right open, I just need to find the switch or the handle or whatever."
"Sure, you do, honey," she answers, sympathetically. "Sure, you do."
I finally give up and crumple sadly to the floor.
"I should have paid more attention," I say, more to myself than to my mother.
"In school?" my mother asks. "Or just life in general?"
She pauses, and then her mothering instinct must kick in, because she tells me, "Ana, your boyfriend, if he really does exist, seems like a nice guy for someone I never met. He is a nice guy, isn't he? He didn't molest me while I was unconscious, did he?"
"No," I assure her.
"Well, I won't hold that against him. A real gentleman would have shown me the courtesy of an enthusiastic grope. Anyway, you should go after him."
"After him?" I repeat, mulling the idea over in my mind. "You really think so, mom?"
"Of course I do. You only live once, honey. After all, we don't want you to end up like those two old drunks over there."
I look, but I don't see who she's talking about.
"Those two," she says and points across the room from us.
"That's a mirror you're looking at, mom," I tell her. "But if I go, what will you do?"
"Don't you worry about me. If there's one thing your mother knows, it's how to take care of herself. I wonder what Harvey Weinstein is up to? Now that guy knows how to treat a lady."
I think about the sweet time Christian and I spent in the round room, laying in each other's round arms in the round bed. Hmm... have you ever noticed how most foods are round? Round eggs, round berries, round pancakes. Waffles are round, but in a square kind of way. Cupcakes are round, muffins are round, manhole covers are round. Donuts are round.
I don't mean to make you blush, but a man's penis is long and round. Long, I guess, if you're lucky. Although I've heard that girth is more important than length. Kate told me that.
"Girth is more important than length," she said, and then reminded me to not forget the cucumbers on my way home from the grocery store. "I want to make my special salad."
Funny, in all the time we've been roommates, I've never seen her prepare anything in the kitchen, much less a salad.
A woman's vagina is long and round, too, but in a different way. It's an emptiness that goes inward, rather than a fullness that goes outward.
If you're lucky, I guess.
Just after our decadent time in the circular room of roundness, Christian fell to sleep for a few minutes. Jokingly, I took the blue ribbon I was wearing in my hair and wrapped it around his yankee doodle dandy. I tied it in a nice bow. When he woke up a few minutes later, he looked down and slyly commented, "I don't know where I've been, but it would seem I won First Place while I was there."
"Tell me about yourself," I coaxed, and he did. He told me how his first job was at McDonald's.
"I was in charge of putting the sesame seeds on their hamburger buns," he said. "I would take a tiny brush, and spread a glue-like substance on one side of the sesame seed and then stick it to the top of the bun. After that I tried a career in law enforcement. I was the head security guard at Jamba Juice. So you see, Ana, Mrs. Robinson really did save me from myself."
Uhg... there's that name again. Mrs. Robinson. I don't know why he calls her that. I guess, because I do.
I drift off, and when I come back to the surface of consciousness I hear him say, "...Pope Francis, or Frankie 'Five Fingers,' as we used to call him in the old neighborhood..."
I drift off again.
"...my father always told me I had rocks in my head," I hear from someplace far away, "and my mother always told me knowledge was more valuable than gold, ergo rocks must be more valuable than gold. That's how I made my first million. With rocks..."
It's like I'm floating down a river, occasionally touching the shore of consciousness, which is a lot like the surface of consciousness, except it's on the side and not on top.
"...I threw the football and hit the referee square in the head," Christian's words float somewhere above me.
"Did the ref go down?" I asked, dreamily.
"I'm not taking about his private life."
"I mean, did it knock him to the ground?"
"Yes, and when he woke up his pants were missing."
"I see," I said, but I didn't. Not really. I was off once again to Slumberville. That's right next to Lidsville.
"...it was the saddest day of my life," I heard him say in the distance and brought myself back to the conservatory of consciousness to conscientiously hear what he was saying of consequence.
"Aren't you listening to me, Ana? You're the only one I've ever told any of this to."
"Yes. Only you. You and my bodyguard Crockett. He needs to know these kind of things."
"Just me and Crockett?"
"Yes, just you and Crockett. And Doobie. You and Crocket and Doobie, that's all. And my receptionist, she knows too. You, Crockett, Doobie, my receptionist, and my parents. As well as my maid and cook. You and Crockett and Doobie, my receptionist, my parents, my maid, and my cook."
"Yes, really. Donna, Jean, and Little Missy, I told them, too. That's everyone."
"Yes, everyone. Everyone, except for the President of the United States of America, that is. I told him back in the first chapter. That's why you saw him crying when he left my office. How sad that day was."
"How sad what day was?"
"That day, when I saw the President of the United States of America leaving your office?"
"No, I'm talking about the saddest day of my life."
"What happened what?"
"What happened on the saddest day of your life?"
"I thought we were talking about the President of the United States of America."
"You were about to tell me what happened on the saddest day of your life."
"Oh... that day. I've never told anybody about it."
"You can tell me," I suggest softly.
"I had a twin brother, Ana. His name was Billie Joe, and I say 'had,' because he committed suicide."
"Oh, my goodness."
"Goodness had nothing to do with it. It was a girl. Maybe that's why I find myself so disconnected from women and feel the need to punish them. It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty, Delta day. We were out chopping cotton and her brother was baling hay. And at dinner time we stopped and walked back to the house to eat. And her mama hollered out the back door, 'Y'all remember to wipe your feet.' And then she said, 'I got some news this morning from Choctaw Ridge,' but she must have decided to break the bad news more gently, because she seemed to change the subject. She said, 'Everybody who doesn't have a brother who killed himself jumping off the Tallahatchie Bridge, take a step forward.' As I was about to step forward, she held up a hand. 'Not so fast, Christian,' she told me."
"So, you go over the rainbow," my mother is telling me, "to Sugarcandy Mountain, or wherever it is you need to go, to find your boyfriend, Ana. You go, and, when you find him, you tell him, 'We believe in you, Carlton...'"
"...Christian. We believe in you."
That is all the encouragement I need, and I run off to find Carlton... I mean, Christian. I catch up with him just outside, on the airport's tarmac. He's preparing to leave.
"What the heck is that?" I ask him, my mouth agape.
"Ana!" Christian calls out, and I can see that he's surprised and actually happy to see me. "You came after me!"
It's a statement, but it sounds more like a question that's already been answered, which it has. I mean, I'm standing right there.
I'm standing, because I've stopped in my tracks. He holds out his hand to me.
I don't know. I'm not sure.
"What the heck is that?" I say again.
"It's a hot air balloon, Ana," he explains. "It's the only way to fly."
The hot air balloon is a big beautiful beast, with the words "State Fair" above the name "Omaha" emblemed on the side, if "emblem" can be used as a verb and a circular object can be said to have a side. It has an inside and outside, I guess. In which case, it's on the outside.
Christian offers me his hand, inviting me to join him. The basket floats just above the ground by about a foot or two. I take Christian's hand and step aboard. My added weight causes the basket of the hot air balloon to touch down on the earth with a soft thud.
I said "thud."
I see Crockett handling the burner, which heats the air until it causes the envelope to raise heavenward. The envelope is the actual balloon part of the hot air balloon, and the basket can also be referred to as a gondola.
That's Mister Gondola, to you.
"Let's do it," Christian says, looking at me but talking to Crockett.
"Okay, boss," Crockett says, and gives the burner a boost.
Slowly, the magnificent beast defies gravity and pulls away from the earth. It lifts us higher and higher into the atmosphere. I look over the edge of the basket, and see the airport growing tinier and tinier beneath me, the people looking like ants. Ants with arms and walking on two legs, that is.
"Do you feel reckless?" Christian asks me, with a mischievous grin on his face.
"You bet I do, boss," Crockett answers.
"Not you, you idiot," Christian barks at his right-hand man. "I'm talking to Ana."
"You bet I do, Christian," I answer.
"Not you, Ana," he tells me. "Can't you see I'm talking to Crockett? Can't anyone follow a simple conversation?"
Neither of us say anything.
"That's an open question," Christian enlightens us. "Either of you can answer."
Crockett answers by goosing the burner even more.
I answer by moving closer to him.
"I feel reckless," I whisper seductively, feeling the warmth of his body. I had always heard about the mile-high club. I wonder if this is what Christian has in mind. With Crockett right there? Oh my, that would be naughty.
Christian reaches down and pulls out something long and hard.
A bungee cord.
He secures it around his feet, opens the gate to the gondola, and dives off the side in an Olympic-quality exemplification of bungee jumping. When he reaches the end of the bungee cord's elasticity, it snaps him back, and he sticks a graceful three-point landing any Russian gymnast would be proud of.
"Your turn," he tells me, as he removes the bungee cord from around his ankles.
Uh, uh. No way. I'm against euthanasia, and I'm not talking about Chinese children.
"No," I tell him
"You won't believe how exhilarating it is..."
"...or how alive you'll feel..."
"...when you stare death in the eyes and laugh in its face."
"How many times do I have to tell you..."
"There will be a Hostess Twinkie waiting for you when you get back," he bribes.
What can I say, his bribing works. If bungee jumping doesn't make me feel more alive, the Twinkie sure will. Do you know what I like most about Hostess Twinkies? There's two of them. And I'm not just saying that because of all the free Twinkies the company is paying me with for product placement.
"I just need to know how much you weigh."
"Your weight. I need to know how much you weigh so I can choose the proper length of cord."
"Aren't they all the same?"
"Of course not, Ana. You do understand physics, don't you?"
If I wanted to understand physics, I wouldn't have slept through my classes in college.
"Mumble, mumble, mumble," I mumble.
"What, Ana? I couldn't hear you, you've got to speak up."
I think about it. Control freak that he is, he'll never stop pestering me. So, should I tell him in pounds, in stones, or use the metric system? I decide to go with pounds. It sounds thinner.
"Good girl," he says, and chooses the proper length of cord.
He secures one end to my ankles, and double-checks that the other end is attached properly to the gondola. He must really care for me, if he takes the time and effort to make sure I don't die a horrible death.
"Make me proud," he says.
"I will, boss," Crockett answers.
I do a graceful swan dive off the side of the basket in an attempt to impress Christian, and my body cuts through the brisk air like cold steel. I drop toward the ground faster than Bill Clinton's pants at the Miss Arkansas pageant. I feel so free as I plummet toward the earth, so... alive. Darn that Christian, it is exhilarating. I wish I could fall forever, like that Chinese girl at the end of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and I'm not just saying that because Ang Lee promised me a part in his next movie.
The bungee cord stretching, stretching, stretching...
My face slams into the ground.
I shouldn't have lied about my weight, I think to myself.
There's a pause, and then the cord snaps back up with a force so great my head hits the bottom of the basket. Which forces me to go down, and not in the fun way, again hitting the ground. I leave an imprint this time of my nose, eyes, and open mouth.
I shoot back up. There's a dent where my head had hit before. I leave another one. I keep slamming up and down, up and down. Oh my goobers, it seems like it's never going to end.
Basket! Ground! Basket! Ground!
WHAM! WHAM! WHAM!
By the grace of Lord Xenu, one of Newton's Laws of Motion finally kicks in and I find myself just dangling by the bungee cord off the side of the hot air balloon.
"Ana!" I hear Christian call from above. "Are you okay?"
I'm too stunned to answer. Also, the chunk of grass stuffed into my mouth like a good sex act gone bad doesn't help. I feel the cord being tugged on above me, but, between Crockett and Christian, they're unable to pull me up.
"Doobie!" Christian calls out, his voice in a panic.
A whiff of burning herbs whooshes past me, the pungent smell lingering.
"Yes, Harry?" a familiar voice slurs. He must pause to look around, because he says, "Talk about being high."
I can almost picture Doobie's moist, round eyes blinking in the high altitude.
Christian ignores Doobie's faux pas with his name, and quickly commands, "Quick, Doobie, get Ana!"
"Yes, you four-eyed mumble, mumble, mumble."
There's another pause. Then I hear Doobie take a deep drag from one of his special hand-rolled cigarettes.
"Liftus elephantus!" he exhales.
Somehow, I find myself back in the basket. I look around and see only Crockett and Christian.
"Are you okay, Ana?" Christian asks, concern in his eyes. With a gentlemanly swipe of his sleeve, he wipes the green gobs of concern away.
I spit out the chunk of real estate from my mouth...
...and assure Christian that I am.
There's such loving concern in his eyes, as he gently cleans the dirt from my face.
"You've soiled yourself," he tells me, wrinkling his nose.
"Trust me, that's not soil," I tell him back.
"I'm famished," Christian declares decaratively.
Me, too. Although you wouldn't think so, after my having just ingested a mouthful of dirt. Somehow, I had always thought dirt and grass and grubs would be more filling, but it's not. Like Chinese food, after a half hour I'm hungry again.
"Would you like something international or something a bit more continental?" he says, giving me a choice.
I look around. This close to the airport, I see nothing but hotels and an IHOP.
"I'm in the mood for something continental," I tell him, remembering how, when he told me he was taking me to a world-famous restaurant, we ended up at McDonald's.
He didn't lie, I guess.
Immediately, he pulls off the road and into the driveway of one of those hotels.
Did I mention we were in his car? Well, we are. For the sake of the story, just go with it.
He finds a parking space close to the entrance, hangs his "handicap" placard on his rear-view mirror, and we exit the car and enter the hotel.
We walk briskly through the lobby, holding hands. He's a step or two ahead of me and is anxiously pulling me along. My, but my naughty boyfriend seems to be in a hurry. A certain part of my body tingles at the thought of what he's in the mood to eat.
"Just pretend we're staying here," he tells me.
I'm not sure I understand what he means, until he leads me into a dining area, of sorts.
"You're bringing me to the hotel's free continental breakfast?" I ask in surprise.
"Hey," he says, "I didn't get rich by being a spendthrift. Besides, you're the one who said you were in the mood for something continental."
I couldn't argue with his logic. It was irrefutable.
His eyes were sparkling, like his skin in direct sunlight. I've never seen him this happy, this giddy, and it's a joy to behold, as opposed to beehive. My eyes are probably sparkling, too, as I see food from one end of the room to the other.
"And it's all free," Christian agrees.
In the middle of it all is a giant cornucopia laying on its side with fruits and vegetables and grains pouring out of it. I pick up a corn-on-the-cob and begin to eat.
"That's plastic," Christian tells me, and he's right.
"Here," he says, again taking my hand, "let me show you around. Oh, look, Ana. Eggs!"
I've never seen anyone get so excited about eggs, unless you want to count Harry Fierstein. Christian continues.
"What makes them continental is that they're hard-boiled. Any hack can scramble two eggs together, but to hard-boil them properly, it takes an artist. And look at how many different kinds of cereal they have. Wow! Frosted Flakes! Look, Ana, they even have high-fiber cereal, if you're into that kind of thing."
I don't know what kind of thing he means, but I'm sure I'm not.
"And if you're so inclined, you can make your own waffles over there, by the bagels and cream cheese. Excuse me, my dear, while I indulge help myself to some of this yogurt."
As he starts to slurp, I look around. The dining area has a nice Pilgrim-like theme to it. A turkey here, some corn-stalks there, and pumpkins scattered all around. There's even a girl dressed as a Native American helping people at the waffle station. She looks Latina or Hispanic. It might sound racist, but I can't tell them apart.
"She's an Indian," Christian says in his typical un-p.c.-like way.
"No, she's not," I tell him.
"Yes, she is."
"No, she's not," I insist.
"Yes, she is."
"Indians are from India," I say, correcting him.
"Be that as it may, she's still an Indian."
Christian is such a control freak that I'm determined to prove him wrong. I go up to the girl.
"Excuse me," I say, by way of introduction, "do you speak English?"
"Si," she says.
"And do you work here??
"In the kitchen?"
"Can I ask you a silly question?"
"Are you supposed to be an Indian?"
"Really? What kind?"
"See?" Christian tells me, and he leads me to a table where he's already served the two of us.
My, how thoughtful he can be when he wants to be. Thoughtful, that is.
"You are so unpredictable, Mr. Grey," I tell him.
"That's only because I am, Miss Steele" he tells me back.
"This has been a wonderful day," I tell him.
"I know it has," he tells me back.
"Thank you," I tell him,
He looks at me intently.
"No, Ana," he tells me back, taking my hand in his, "thank you."
I don't know how he knows, but he knows.
Under Christian's guidance, Crockett lands the hot-air balloon right in front of my mother's house.
"Would you like to come in for a bit?" I ask Christian.
"Yes," he answers.
"Really?" I squeal in happiness.
"No," he says.
With that, the hot air balloon starts to rise, taking my boyfriend par ardua ad alta upon a hazardous and technically unexplainable journey into the outer stratosphere. Christian looks at Crockett, who looks back at Christian. Crockett raises his shoulders in the international sign of I-Don't-Know-What-Just-Happened-Boss.
"This is a highly irregular procedure! This is absolutely unprecedented!" Christian declares, as he falls upward into the distance. "And it ruined my exit!"
My mother and step-father run outside to see what all the hub-bub is about. Seeing Christian, they wave goodbye.
"Who's that?" my step-father asks my mother.
"I have no idea," my mother answers back.
"Oh, come back!" I cry to the wind. "Don't go without me! Please come back!"
"I can't come back!" Christian cries out, too. He looks at Crockett, who again gives him a shrug of helplessness, as opposed to a shrug of helpfulness. "I don't know how it works!"
"Oh," I cry out in disappointment.
Using his middle fingers, Christian gives the thumbs-up sign with both hands to my parents and the rest of those of their neighbors who've come out of their trailers to see if the government was handing out free cheese again.
"Goodbye, folks!" Christian says, waving.
They all wave back.
"Goodbye! Goodbye!" they say to the man floating away in the balloon.
"Christian won't be staying for dinner," I tell her.
"No kidding," she says. "Well, that's okay. It gives you and me a little mother/daughter time together. What would you like?"
"Believe it or not," I tell her, "I'd like a proper cup of coffee from a proper coffeepot. Tin coffeepots or iron coffeepots, they're of no use to me, so I'll have a proper cup of coffee in a proper coffeepot, or I'll have a cup of tea."
"Sounds like just what the doctor ordered," she tells me. "Do you suppose when a doctor gets sick and another doctor doctors him, does the doctor doing the doctoring have to doctor the doctor the way the doctor being doctored wants to be doctored, or does the doctor doing the doctoring of the doctor doctor the doctor as he wants to do the doctoring?"
"Some biscuits would be nice," I say, purposely ignoring her blatherings.
"Why, isn't that a coincidence," she tells me. "I bought a bit of baking powder and baked a batch of biscuits. I brought a big basket of biscuits back to the bakery and baked a basket of big biscuits. Then I took the big basket of biscuits and the basket of big biscuits and mixed the big biscuits with the basket of biscuits that was next to the big basket and put a bunch of biscuits from the basket into a biscuit mixer and brought the basket of biscuits and the box of mixed biscuits and the biscuit mixer to the bakery, and then I made a pot of coffee in a proper coffeepot."
I don't know what's gotten into my mother, so I say, "That's nice, mom," and get on my phone to send Christian a quick text.
"How's the weather up there?" I type.
He quickly types back:
Whether the weather be fine or whether the weather be not, whether the weather be cold or whether the weather be hot, I'll weather the weather, whatever the weather, whether I like it or not.
"What's that contraption, dear?" my mother asks, looking at the rectangular object in my hand.
"It's a phone, mom," I tell her.
"Oh, sure it is, dearie," she says. "Sure it is. And did one of your imaginary boyfriends give it to you?"
"As a matter of fact..." I begin, but my mother interrupts.
"You know, it's so good you're here," she tells me. "We haven't talked in ages and have so much to catch up on. I can't wait to..."
"In a minute, mom," I say, typing off another text to Christian.
Where are you now?
We've caught a bit of a tailwind. We're practically in India now.
"Indianapolis?" I type.
"No," Christian types back, and then continues.
Indianapolis isn't in India, Ana. Indians are in India and Indians are in Indiana, but the Indian Indians and the Indiana Indians aren't identical Indians. The Indians in India are Indian Indians and the Indians in Indiana are indigenous Indians.
"Come sit at the table with me, Ana," my mom interrupts again. "I'm so anxious to talk with you."
"Sure, mom," I assure her. "After this."
I miss you so much, Christian, I'd be with you right now, if I could.
"Yes, Ana," Christian writes back, "I would be with you too, if only I hadn't dropped you off at that homeless shelter."
"Homeless shelter?" I write back. "That was my mother's house!"
"Of course it was, Ana," Christian writes. "Of course it was."
"Oh, Ana," my mother interjects, "you being here is such a blessing to me."
"What did you say, mom?" I ask, as I get right back on my phone to fire off another message to Christian.
You're not judging me by where my parents live, are you Christian?
A gentle judge judges justly, Ana. A gentle judge judges justly.
Are you growling at me, Miss Steele? I possess a cat of my own for growlers. Come to think of it, I haven't seen Fluffy lately. I wonder where she's off to?
Um, gotta go. I can't wait to talk with my mom.
"Understood," Christian types back and signs off.