Trivial Pursuits {?} - Chapter 5, Part 1

Greg was answering his own questions again. It was meant to be fun, but it felt instead as though he were a detainee presiding over his own torture. Amy half-listened as he feverishly interrogated himself, grappled with a response, and, once he was satisfied with an answer, allowed himself to progress to the next, more rigorous level of self-questioning. She wasn’t sure if his goal was victory, defeat, or something more elusive; his only opponent was himself, so it shouldn’t really matter. But looking at his face, which was pleated with the frustrated will to remember, she understood that this was precisely why it did matter.

“The boll weevil,” he stated with relief, as he slipped a serving spoon back into the bowl of rice amandine on the dinner table. “The boll weevil feeds on cotton buds and flowers. In 1978, the U.S. government enacted the boll weevil Eradication program to control infestation.”

“Interesting,” she said reflexively, knowing there was nothing more required of her. When he had first begun to do this—to fill the stagnant air between them with these breathless spates of minutiae—she’d originally tried to answer him thoughtfully, to engage him. But she’d quickly realized that her input was pointless, wasted on the endeavor. At best, she was useful as an audience, an echo chamber that allowed him to amplify his own thoughts. There was nothing she could add, and so she simply said interesting, which usually meant about as interesting as 24 hours of nonstop jazz xylophone on the Weather Channel.

“It’s strange, the boll weevil engages in a kind of suicidal practice sometimes,” he said, his voice taking on the airy faux-offhandedness that he tended to use when ushering in a profound thought. “What happens is, they come out of their hibernation before there’s any cotton available, and so of course, they die.”

This was the strange thing about Greg’s trivia obsession: most of the time, it took the form of a series of non-sequiturs, patched together into a larger tapestry of overall meaninglessness, like a deranged-looking memory quilt made in a continuing education course. Occasionally, though, he’d drop something like the boll weevil business—something that sounded like it had intention, like he was trying to break through his self-imposed fog and convey something of importance to her. It was rare, but she always detected it immediately, because it always caused her to feel something.

“Well, I don’t know that I would call that suicidal,” she said, feeling a muted wave of irritation rising up in her, making the sound of his chewing unbearable. “Maybe sometimes their timing is off, and they don’t make it. It’s just nature. To call it suicidal is ridiculous. It’s a parasite, Greg. They don’t suffer from ennui.”

It occurred to Amy that parasitism was the very opposite of suicide. A parasite is the consummate hanger-on to life, its blind will to survive so inexorable that it appropriates the life blood of another creature, latches on and benefits from the work done by the pumping heart of its host. Yet what kind of survival is this, to merge bloodstreams with another creature, to feed off another animal’s will to live? A parasite, she thought, survives and does nothing more. A suicide has the grace to refuse to do so. A host animal, she thought, would be wise to kill itself, hopefully taking the parasite down with it. It was the only way of imposing some measure of dignity on the entire squalid situation.

Now Greg was looking at her with curiosity. He just stared, and she wondered if maybe he was actually beginning to hear her, and if he was going to respond as though he’d heard her.

“What?” she said. She was willing to lead him into an argument if it meant he would actually be there, with her. Say you’re afraid to come out of hibernation, that it will kill you, she thought, tell me about why you think P.J. didn’t survive. Let’s talk about how I’m the host and you’re the weevil. She looked deeply into his pale eyes and waited.

“Technically, a boll weevil isn’t really considered a parasite, Ame,” he said. “They actually belong to a class of beetle called Anthonomus grandis. A pest, yes; but not a parasite.”

She nodded, feeling the familiar sinking of her blood that meant the return of disappointment, her status quo. She wondered how many more times she could risk this particular type of disappointment without hating him for it.
“Oh, right, of course,” Amy said, picking a tick-shaped almond sliver out of her rice. “Interesting.”

When Greg had first started getting together with some of his referee friends to play Trivial Pursuit, she had encouraged it. Anything that brought the spark of life back into his eyes, that gave him a reason to be a participant in life, had to be a good thing.

She’d realized, only after it was too late, that the opposite was true; that for Greg, trivia provided a further means of retreat, like a snug-necked woolen sweater that a kid gets his head trapped in on purpose. His frenzied obsession with rarefied tidbits actually protected him from fully understanding anything. By memorizing and parroting answers written on cards, he could feel safe from the unanswerable, the unfathomable. As long as he got it right, with the speed and exactitude that was required, he could detach himself from the vastness of the unknown. The unknown had destroyed him; now he was trying to destroy it, one correct answer at a time.

The first time Greg had blindsided her with one of his meaningful trivia revelations, it had upset her so much she hadn’t been able to sleep for days. That was the time he had told her about the human brain and what a hypocrite it truly was, and this had caused her to think of God. She had wanted desperately to provoke Greg to anger, as well, but this wasn’t the way trivia worked for him. Trivia allowed him to explore the unthinkable at a safe remove, like a surgeon; it was she who was left with the messy emotions.

“You know, the human brain is incapable of feeling pain,” he’d said to her that day, during a commercial break in a made-for-TV movie they were barely watching. “Despite being the messenger of sensation to the entire body, the dispatch center for all pleasure and pain, the brain actually doesn’t have any sensory nerve endings at all. If someone were to cut into your brain, you wouldn’t even feel it.”

Initially, she’d rolled her eyes at the faulty logistics. “Sure, I wouldn’t feel a thing, except for the part where they would have to cut my skull open with a saw.”
“Well, right, yes,” he said. “Obviously, that’s a flawed example; there are other factors involved. But in a vacuum, the brain is insensate.” The brain, in a vacuum….she’d laughed like a 7th grader at the absurdity of Greg’s wording. It reminded her of those anti-drug commercials from the 80s where the brain was likened to a fried egg: your brain, on drugs. This is your brain, in a vacuum, she mused. But then, studying Greg’s face, she was saddened by the fact that he didn’t hear anything funny in what he’d said.

Amy said, “So, even though the brain is responsible for the full range of human emotions—pain, pleasure, fear, all of it—it’s sitting up there on its high horse feeling nothing?” The sudden force of her anger ambushed her, and was further heightened by the fact that her traitorous brain had obviously green-lit this emotion.

“Yup,” Greg said calmly. “That’s pretty much it.”

“What bullshit,” she said with ferocity, her face reddened by the rapid pooling of her blood under her skin. “So the brain has no idea, no clue whatsoever, of what pain is, what it’s inflicting on the rest of the body. Yet it’s is up there calling the shots. What a joke.”

She’d known at the time that she was probably talking about God, a dispassionate, detached God who rearranged human lives like chess pieces without having to feel the consequences. She’d understood that even her emotions could no longer be trusted, issued as they were from a brain that felt nothing. She’d looked to Greg to share this fury, fury at the unfairness of it all, but his attention had drifted back to the movie, which had come back from its break.

“Yes, the human body is an amazing thing,” he said.

And so tonight it was the boll weevil, which was, mercifully, a much easier topic for Amy to handle. As Greg proceeded to explain the distinctions in basic morphology and eating habits between the boll weevil and the Dung Beetle, Amy suddenly received a text message from Lynette. An excited little blip of her cell phone, cut off precipitously before it could evolve into a full-throated ring, signaled the arrival of this message.


Amy liked this sound a great deal; it had a sort of digitized restraint, sudden and concise and clean. It was a nice contrast to the obnoxious, repetitive shrillness of a ringing phone, which insisted on her attention like a tantrum-y kid chanting the same phrase over and over. She’d always been a little bit unsettled by ringing phones; often, she jumped in alarm at the first ring.

But this was not a subdued message from a shy person; this was Lynette, who’d agreed to communicate by text only after Amy explained she would never, under any circumstances, answer Lynette’s calls when Greg was home.

“Who was that?” Greg questioned, his face more handsome than ever, his blue eyes shining with mild and fleeting interest, his skin golden and mostly unravaged by the past few years, his hair curled boyishly, still half-damp from the shower. Yet his beauty repelled her. It was the beauty of the untroubled, and this was a beauty she didn’t think he had any right to have. It was certainly not the kind she had.

“Oh, you know, the new account,” she said. She willed herself to look into his eyes, sliding her glance slightly to the right. They had both seen a TV special once that had described how eye movements can distinguish a lie from the truth. According to this special, a person who looked to the right while answering a question was recalling information, while a person who looked to the left was constructing information from nothing. Based on this logic, a left-looker was inventing information and therefore lying. She knew Greg would remember this, since it was a fascinating bit of trivia, and that he would use it as a guideline in his dealings with people. It would not occur to him, however, that someone might attempt to outwit this system for dishonest purposes; that she might deliberately thwart it to lie to him. “They wanted to know how many pictures they could have posted on their home page.”

Greg nodded. She saw that he believed her, and she felt a combination of self-satisfaction and fear at how effective a liar she’d become. In the early days of their marriage, she’d been unable, or unwilling, to lie about anything, even minor issues where a white lie might have been the wiser and more merciful course. She’d told him which shirts made him look fat, she’d told him which of his friends she found attractive. It wasn’t that she wanted to hurt his feelings; it was simply that she wanted him to know her completely and without guise, without politeness. That person she’d been, that couple they’d been together, now felt like distant acquaintances she wouldn’t want to be stuck on a double-date with. She couldn’t believe the same bodies that had contained those two people now contained these two people. Now everything was polite; their communication had been reduced to trivia, the smallest of small talk.

“Ok, I’m off, Greg announced abruptly, pushing back from the table, balling up his napkin and stuffing deep in his water glass like an abandoned magic trick. “Wish me luck.” He kissed the top of Amy’s head and swished his arms into his jacket. The light, synthetic windbreaker swish had become a pleasant sound for her, because it meant he was about to leave her to her temporary freedom. She felt the usual self-disgust, tempered by a far more powerful emotional imperative; she needed this, it didn’t matter if it was right or not. If she didn’t have this, then some other kind of greediness would take over, maybe a worse kind. Maybe something so terrible and honest, no one would be spared.

Check out previous chapters of Trivial Pursuits {?} right here.

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