Gender Reveal Party
I’m not sure if it was ultimately a good thing, but here’s how it went down.
The four of us had been isolating for six weeks and were going squirrelly like everyone else. Time dragged and then it magically sped up and then it dragged again. We basically abandoned the kids to play their brainless video games while Christian and I drank way too much. When we weren’t drinking, I made lumpy sourdough baguettes and Christian locked himself in his workshop in the basement, a sort of isolation within an isolation. Families aren’t meant to spend so much time together. They really aren’t.
Are we nice people? Somewhat. We’re not churchy or squeaky clean. We cared enough about each other at least to try to make it work. We didn’t think we had any big issues to deal with, at least. My friend has a drug-addicted son who lasted about four days in lockdown before he took off. He slithered home a couple weeks later, coughing and feverish, and of course, his family took him in, and soon everyone was sick. What were they thinking? They should have locked him outside and thrown rocks at him from the windows. Instead, he got a hug and a houseful of people to infect.
Maybe, if the virus had actually turned people into zombies, we could have seen the real impact. It would have made isolating feel a lot more purposeful if we were fighting off zombie hordes. Sometimes, the whole pandemic felt like another Y2K. I knew people were dying, but for a long time, I didn’t know anyone who had. Maybe I’m retroactively justifying.
The first thing that happened to shake up our new normal was that the parents of our kids’ friends bought a trampoline and posted videos of their kids having the most fun any human being has ever had at any time in human history. Our kids, Brandon and Kellie, had only ever seen trampolines on TV and were desperate to go over and jump on this one, but Christian and I said no effing way. We thought elasticized nylon trampoline material was the equivalent of an IKEA ball pit. The kids might as well go to the mall and lick the escalator handrails.
But it’s all about temptation, right?
One afternoon, my best friend, Macy, was having an online gender reveal party. We’ve known each other since kindergarten, and I was really sad she couldn’t throw a real-life celebration. I’d spent half of my isolation zooming with her and my Chardonnay collection. The thought of not being with her in person at this big moment was too much to bear. So . . . I told my family I needed to take a sanity walk, a long walk of at least five kilometres. Nobody even gave me a second glance as I went out the door.
The stroll to Macy’s was nice. If I squinted my brain, I could almost pretend it was normal everyday life again. When I got to her place, she was so happy to see me. I sat in her little courtyard area with only a glass sliding door between us—much better than a computer screen, that’s for sure. When she set a bottle of Pinot Grigio and a glass outside her door for me, I teared up at the sight. I poured myself a glass and then toasted her through the window. Then I lost all track of time.
It turns out that, while I was gone, Christian also went out for a “mental health walk.” His was a booty call with his personal assistant, Janeen, who lived in a condo about two kilometres in the opposite direction as Macy’s place. He told the kids the same thing I did: “Off to do a walk, just like your mom!”
Christian was gone for maybe ninety seconds before the kids hopped on their bikes and teleported to the trampoline. To their credit, they did stay two metres away from their friends, and they took turns, but after an hour or so of bouncing, Kellie got motion sickness and had to go sit on our friends’ deck until she got over it. Brandon kept bouncing, and like me and Christian, the kids lost all track of time.
Pretty much the moment the kids left, the soldering iron in Christian’s workshop short-circuited and eventually set the house on fire. Ours was an old wooden house and was basically a torch. I noticed the smoke and heard the sirens as I walked home from Macy’s. Brandon and Kellie caught up with me just as I rounded the corner. We saw Christian coming from the opposite direction.
The beam at the top of the staircase fell into the basement. It looked like an orange Popsicle lit from within. The four of us stood in shock as we surveyed the glowing remains.
The fire chief approached. “You the folks who live here?”
“Yes. I—yes,” I said.
“All of you accounted for?”
“Yes . . . yes!”
“Were all of you out together?”
“Uh . . . yes.”
“Can you tell me where you all were?”
“Out for a walk,” I said.
Christian said, “Me too.”
“It looked to me like you came from different directions.”
“We didn’t walk together.”
“Ma’am, why do you have blue confetti in your hair?”
Christian looked at me. “You have blue confetti in your hair?”
“I was at Macy’s gender reveal Zoom party. I was on the other side of a glass window the whole time!”
“Except when the confetti blew,” my husband said.
“Fuck off, Christian. Where the hell were you?”
“I actually went for a genuinely real sanity walk.”
The fire chief asked, “Sir, would CCTV cameras along the street confirm your story?”
Christian became flustered. “Uh, well, yes, I suppose.”
“Were either of your children with you?”
I stared at them. “Where the hell were you two?”
“We went to use Sarah’s trampoline.”
None of us came out of this thing smelling like roses. Insurance did cover our losses, but we became the poster family for isolation shaming on the cover of the suburb’s shoppers’ paper. “Local Family a Cautionary Tale for Isolation Breakers.” The one good thing that came out of it was that we bought the kids a trampoline. Not much of a silver lining, but it’s something.
Liz Claiborne Sheets
Any situation can blow up, of course, but things blow up more in my job than in most. I’m a Canadian border security guard, and I work the crossings from Washington state into British Columbia. Already, you’re thinking I’m a cold, arrogant bastard who enjoys nothing more than fucking people over for no reason other than because I can—and you’re absolutely right about that. But the thing you have to remember is that you people made me this way.
I went into this job actually liking humanity but soon found out that you people will lie about anything. All day, every day, all I see are liars lying to me. If that were your job, wouldn’t you occasionally want to fuck people over for the fun of it?
On top of the wear and tear of all that lying, we’re also bored out of our minds. At lunch, we create challenges to try to keep things interesting. Maybe we’ll pull over only people in red cars for enhanced screening. Or maybe it’s guys with ginger beards. Maybe it’s people who are too friendly. I have found that the people who lay on the charm are the ones with a hundred bucks’ worth of undeclared cheese in the trunk. These are by far the most fun people to fuck over because they know darn well that they are lying and (this is critical) they also feel actual guilt for having done something morally wrong.
I’ve let people into Canada who very likely had handguns and Semtex in the trunk, but they caught me on a good day, so lucky them. At least they were lying about something cool instead of $400 worth of Liz Claiborne cotton sheets or a small piece of genuine coral for an aquarium tableau.
And you can always count your lucky stars you got me and not Judith. Judith is the most dreaded border guard of all: she’s a young woman out to prove that she can do the job as well as any man, like it’s still 1974. Heaven help you if you end up in her lane while Brenda, the supervisor, is in Judith’s booth, the two of them discussing the lunchroom’s new Purell dispenser or something. You might as well turn off your ignition and put the car in park. And, when you pull up, you’re going nowhere except maybe the alien probe station, where we stick LEDs up your ass, looking for drugs we know aren’t really there. But you actually rolled your eyes at one of Judith’s questions, didn’t you? She will exact her revenge for your insolence.
Last February, when my aging parents ended up in my lane at the crossing, as per protocol, I had to recuse myself. Sadly for them, they ended up getting Judith . . . and Brenda. Perfect storm. Mom, at the wheel, kept pointing my way, as if being my mother entitled her to queenly treatment—a doomed strategy with Judith. Dad, on the other hand, always disintegrates in the presence of authority figures. He’d heard about Judith from me, and when he saw her name tag, he immediately got a bad case of flop sweat. He muttered and choked out all kinds of lies. It was painful to watch—like a hot dog trying to tell you how it was made. Also, unfortunately, he’d drunk a plastic keg of raspberry Gatorade on the highway home to Canada and badly needed to pee.
Dad managed to withstand Judith’s laser-kill death eyes long enough to ask her if he could use the restroom. She said no, he’d have to wait until he and Mom cleared her station—which is actually not true. Meanwhile, Mom had decided not to declare everything she had bought in Washington state and was wearing a full-on lying face. (Ask any border guard; they’re a real thing.) Dad then began whimpering about relieving himself in the empty Gatorade bottle, and when my mom screamed that he had better not do that, Dad got out of the car and ran over to some shrubs on the US side. Judith and Brenda barked at him to return immediately to his vehicle, but Dad’s seventy-six. What are you going to do, tase an old man to death for peeing? As he watered a rhododendron, the US code red alarms started shrieking like it was 9/11 again, and a trio of American border agents ran for him, slipping on their blue nitrile gloves as they came.
The whole thing looked kind of like the Zapruder film, with Dad ending up face down on the grassy knoll, hands cuffed behind his back. The whole border shut down. Judith, Brenda, and I ran over, the ladies yelling at Dad and me shouting at the Americans to cool their jets. A total classic donkey fuck. Long story short, Dad was convicted of indecent public exposure and is never allowed into the US again.
Last May, my parents flew to England and were hauled in for three hours of interrogation at Heathrow. Who knows how the US border authorities have flagged Dad, but I’m pretty sure he now carries a global data stain. All because he’s nervous crossing the border and really needed to pee.
There’s no moral to any of this except: pray to God you don’t get Judith next time you go north and, really, just declare everything. Please. I want to like people again.
Over the past sixty years, I’ve noticed that, if you tell kids they need to live a creative life, they rarely reproduce. Instead, they spend their days trying to generate proof to demonstrate to you that they listened and are fulfilling your command to be, I don’t know, a fashion designer, an app creator, a painter . . . whatever. Combine this imperative with birth control and you’ve got no grandchildren and no population growth. You’re essentially Japan. This happened with my own two children and with my friends’ kids too, and I wish I could go back in history and push a magic “undo” button.
Historically, whenever the subject of grandchildren came up, our kids, Bryanna and Duncan (twenty-nine and thirty-two), always gave my husband, Rob, and me excuses along the lines of “Yes, but not until I finish this current project.”
Rob and I went along with this, but as the years passed, the issue of grandkids felt increasingly urgent. By the time they were in their early thirties, the most I was hoping for was one tiny perfect grandchild from each of them. I guess one small source of comfort was that my brother, Nels, with his two non-reproducing kids, was in the same situation as me. At least I didn’t have to look on in envy.
So, one weekend, we were at a summer family picnic at my brother’s, and everyone got too drunk. Some neighbours had brought their kids along, and when those families left at the kids’ bedtimes, there was an awkward child-free silence out on the lawn.
I ended up sitting with Nel’s daughter, Chloe, a nice enough kid, single and pretty, who began telling me about a jewellery-making program she was signing up for.
“Chloe, sweetie,” I said. “Forget jewellery and all that creative stuff. Just get knocked up.”
“Absolutely. Whoever the father is, he’ll usually stick around. But, even if he doesn’t, you’ve got a big family who’d happily help take care of it.”
“You think so?”
In my mind, I thought I was being ironic and salty: Good old Aunt Jane! And Chloe was laughing as I poured myself another glass of rosé.
Her brother, Darrell, saw us laughing and came over. “What’s the joke?”
“Aunt Jane says I should get knocked up.”
“And Darrell,” I said, “you should knock someone up. Just have kids. The universe will take care of them.”
At this point, my memory gets kind of iffy, but I know I did share my theory about creativity and procreation before a sudden thunderstorm chased us all indoors.
Well, within half a year, Chloe was knocked up and Darrell had knocked someone up. I was happy for them, and I honestly didn’t remember giving them my tipsy advice at the summer picnic until I got a furious phone call from my brother’s wife, Sheila. “I can’t believe you told them to have kids!”
“I didn’t tell anyone to do anything.”
“That’s not what they say.”
Oh shit. “I believe I merely shared my theory about creativity with them.”
“What are you talking about?”
So I told her.
“You think that gets you off the hook here?”
“What hook? Sheila, cool down. They’re adults. They have brains. After you’re twenty-one, no one can tell you to do anything you don’t want to do.”
“Chloe works part-time at Baskin-Robbins. Darrell just got fired from delivering SkipTheDishes, which I think means he actually got fired by a robot. How are they going to support these miraculous new beings, Miss Know-it-all?”
The call ended on a testy note, but after I hung up, I realized I was jealous because Sheila was getting grandkids and I wasn’t. Rob noticed that I was acting strange and asked what was up. I said it was nothing, but the jealousy began to eat me up and I realized I had to do something about it. So, one morning, I got in the car and drove to Bryanna’s sound-mixing studio (she’s a sound editor: creative!) and suggested that the two of us go to a surprise lunch.
“Nothing,” I lied, though I know I sounded jittery.
We went to an Olive Garden by the highway off-ramp.
Once we were seated, Bryanna asked, “Mom, what’s going on? Do you have bad news?”
“No. It’s just that . . .”
“I’m sorry I told you that you should be creative when you grew up.”
“Huh? I thought you were going to tell me you had cancer or something.”
“No. I just wanted to say that it was a bad idea to tell you to follow a creative path.”
“I—I don’t know what to say. What on earth happened to trigger this? I mean—what the actual fuck?”
“Don’t use vulgar language.”
Coffee arrived and we ordered food I had a hunch would go uneaten. Then I explained my theory, and before she shot it down, I asked Bryanna to think of all of her friends who were in similar child-free boats.
“This is so presumptuous, Mom, I don’t know where to begin.”
“Does Dad know about this idiotic theory?”
“I haven’t really shared it fully with him.”
“Fine. I’m going to leave this restaurant right now and call him and tell him I think you have dementia.”
“Okay. Do that. But I still want grandkids.”
And off she went, salad uneaten.
Bryanna’s due next month. She’s not married, and she’s mostly not talking to me, but I don’t care because I know she’ll want a free babysitter. I still think I should never have encouraged her to take piano lessons. Or dance classes. Or anything else.
Heed this warning.
Excerpted from Binge: 60 Stories to Make Your Head Feel Different by Douglas Coupland. Copyright © 2021 Douglas Coupland. Published by Random House Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.