07/04/2226 – The Amazement Experience
Nerea closed her eyes and appreciated the rolling crash of the waves; the sea was part of her. A chickadee beckoned playfully in the distance, and the garden offered fresh wafts of basil and mint.
Seren spoke softly. “You have chosen a perfect home-base. This is paradise.”
“Thank you.” Nerea had never visited this place in the real world but knew it well from simulations; she escaped to it often as a private space of dreams and security. It was home in a way that her childhood island could never be: the home of her grandparents. A narrow path led directly onto the beach and invited them to go for a swim. They admired the ocean from a long dining table in the shaded oasis.
“Do you miss waking near the ocean?”
Nerea had buried her childhood long ago, but it was time to dig. She sifted lightly through mornings of her youth and recalled a lonely little girl, ignorant of the suffering across the water. “I miss the sunrises, but the island was a prison where Clara isolated me from the world. I was allowed only rose-tinted simulations to see off the island, and they filtered out so much pain.”
“Honesty is important, but as you grow, you will understand that too much transparency can crush a childhood. Sometimes, it is the role of adults to protect the young until they are strong enough to survive the truth.”
“Hiding the sadness of others does not magically bring happiness. In fact, it left me empty. Clara is a terrible liar, and even as a child, I knew she was hiding something. One day during math class, I started crying for no reason. My video-teacher said that when life gifts you challenge, it is your time to dance. I decided surviving Clara was my challenge and distanced myself from her. I built a wall to protect myself, and those childhood tears were the last ones I ever shed.”
Nerea’s stomach knotted and she rubbed her hands to hide their tremble. “Through the years, small glimpses outside allowed me to understand that life off the island was not the paradise that Clara wished it to be. When I wondered aloud about inequality or poverty, she reacted with fury. I swallowed my questions and allowed anger to gnaw at my core. At sixteen, I left the island, and we have barely spoken since.”
“There’s a bridge, and Clara let me go. I left, but there was no escape. Life off the island was even more lonely than the solitude on it. I was embarrassingly unprepared, an alien—awkward and naked everywhere I went. I hid my wealth from the judgment of others and suffocated as I learned the true extent of suffering and imbalance.”
“You left almost seven years ago yet link every experience back to Clara. Today began with anger towards Waldon, but it sounds like your most profound anger is towards your mother. You do not even refer to her as your mother, yet she is present in every sentence of your story. Why?”
Nerea stared blankly into the garden. “Clara is both the hero and the victim of every story she tells. She controls the narrative and leaves no space for others. Silence and untold stories left me empty and confused. I know nothing of my father and little of my grandparents. Clara is void of uncertainty, humility and self-doubt, and her lack of empathy for humankind is unforgivable. I’m ashamed to share her wealth. I reject her completely, yet her shadow is cast on everything I do. While I cannot recall ever feeling her physical touch, her invisible control chokes me every evening when I lie in bed, every night when I dream and every morning when I wake. I needed a mother, but she never acted like one. The title of ‘mother’ is earned through acts of love, not by squeezing out a baby. Clara never earned that title, so I stripped it from her. I try not to judge the people I meet, but from the bottom of my heart, I hate Clara.”
And there it was: hate. It had a name. She looked to Seren for validation. “You met her; did you not see her arrogance?”
A saddened smile crossed Seren’s face. “Each of us inherits burdens at birth. Some are obvious, but the most dangerous are often unspoken. I met Clara briefly, and she is one of the most fascinating people I have ever encountered. Her burdens are unimaginable, and she wanted you to make your Decision innocently: free from the weights of your ancestors. She is relieved to finally share these stories with you.
“Clara constructed a childhood that does not exist anymore: a childhood from a different era, like the one she was given. She raised you on that island to protect your innocence and assumed you would love it as she did, but your curiosity far exceeded her ability to protect you.”
Nerea looked to the sky. Clara could tell a good story and had seduced Seren. What had her mother tried to protect her from?
“Are you ready for the next simulation?”
Nerea was not ready. “Let’s go.”
Seren reached into a cooler and pulled out a glass bottle of water branded ‘Eva.’ Nerea froze in excitement.
“Is that…?” Her voice vanished in anticipation.
Seren poured a glass and handed it to Nerea.
Nerea was going to meet her grandmother.
12/07/2008 – The Rage Experience
Eva’s heart raced as her body clenched in anger. Rapid-fire air seethed through her teeth. There was no will left to contain the fury. Injustice, frustration, and revenge stomped through her mind. Jagged movements betrayed her normal dexterity as she laced her shoes with the grace of a horse.
Louis yelled from the kitchen: “YOU CRITICIZE EVERYTHING I DO!”
It bounced back instinctively: “JUST TAKE CARE OF THE THINGS YOU SAID YOU WOULD!!!!”
The front door flew open. Eva tore outside and used every ounce of strength to slam it shut.
She stomped into the shaded garden and emptied her lungs at the beach: “AAAAAHHHH!!!”
Breathe. Headphones. Play. Eva sprinted away from the water, up her favorite forest pathway.
‘Why’s he being like that?!?’
She had worked so hard—three shows in the last two weeks. Her career was finally moving, and she should be on top of the world, but Louis kept letting her down. When she wasn’t busy, she took care of everything. Now she asked for one simple thing: get the dry cleaning done. Easy. But no. Now she did not have the right dress for dinner.
Eva accelerated into the tree-cooled trail, stirred forward by an aggressive mix of metal and rap. She loved the thumping contrast to the serene beauty around her.
It wasn’t just the dry-cleaning; the dirty laundry was still in the basket. He said he was waiting for a full load, but that was just lazy. Anytime Eva saw washing to do, she did it. ‘It takes ten seconds. Why the hell wait? And why does he refuse to spray clean the toilet?’ She did it every day, and it only took a second. She couldn’t even remember the last time he had done it.
A raven landed on the path in front of her and paused before flying away.
‘It was right there! He was at the market, and the dry cleaner was right beside him! There was time for the tax guy, but not for my dress!’
Eva’s jogging slowed as she crossed her favorite little bridge. An angler cast her line into the water.
Her husband had let her sleep in this morning after last night’s show. And he was doing all the work preparing the meal for their friends, even though she had organized it.
Why were they fighting so much?
A woman with a push-buggy walked towards her, singing to her baby. With music blaring, Eva focused straight ahead.
Her dream had taken so much work: years of jingles, bullshit cover bands and failed projects. And now, she finally had an album out! And a concert tour! Regular gigs and good money.
But it was incomplete.
As she jogged past the mother and child, the baby looked straight into Eva’s eye and smiled: a punch in the belly.
Eva wanted a baby.
It might be too late.
Louis would be a wonderful father but wouldn’t dare push her to start a family. They occasionally spoke of kids, but always in an abstract ‘someday.’ Louis supported her dreams while letting go of his own.
She fantasized about holding a baby to her chest and breastfeeding—pure connection.
Thirty-eight. Friends her age had been trying to have a baby for years. Could she even get pregnant? She’d been on birth control for over twenty years. Could they adopt? Louis was young enough, but not her. No agency would grant a child to a mother so old.
Maybe if they went overseas?
… after she had established herself…
… in two, or four years…
… maybe it would still work…
The lump in her throat pushed a pair of tears to roll down her cheek and Eva slowed to a walk. Half of her dreams were slipping away. She turned off the path and wandered through the woods to a secluded part of the river—her personal secret.
Abandon her music?
No. Eva shook herself and was back on stage with the same vision she always had: leather pants, pyrotechnics and a stadium filled with adoring fans. The audience chanted along to her powerful anthem; spirits bathing in its joy. Their hearts beat to the rhythm she had brought into the world.
She loved her dream.
Eva got naked and enjoyed the forest air steaming sweat from her skin. She stepped onto her favorite rock, closed her eyes and stretched her arms like an apple tree. ‘Observe the wind’s touch. Listen to the water’s babble.’ Were the birds admiring her confidence? She was proud of her body; Louis had helped with that. Eva raised her arms above her head and dove into the cool river.
She surfaced on her back, stretched into a star and looked up to the bristling leaves. Thousands of fans sung along to her chorus. She held the last note in ways that only years of relentless training could allow and triumphantly walked offstage and into her dressing room.
There was that baby again; in her chair. So cute. The crowd chanted for an encore. She picked up her smiling angel, lifted her shirt and began to breastfeed. The room vibrated under the arena’s stomping as they called her name in unison.
Eva touched her breast and floated in the water.
The audience did not fade but waited patiently for her to finish. Her guitarist began the chords to her Celtic Lullaby, and the crowd immediately started singing without her. When the baby fell asleep, Louis took the child, and Eva ran back onto the stage to finish the song. Her fans would leave as they did every night: inspired and changed forever.
Eva swam underwater back to the shore.
Maybe she could have it all.
She climbed onto her favorite rock, closed her eyes and embraced the hot sun drying her body. Eva dressed and strolled home, enjoying the newness of her dream. She paused to smell the garden’s basil and mint, then snuck upstairs to take a long, hot shower. Her mind was calm for the first time in forever, and she knew exactly what she wanted.
Eva slipped a cute silk dress over her naked skin and loved the sexy woman that looked back in the mirror.
She walked down the stairs through the modest home. Their big investment was the kitchen: a dream workshop made for cooks and feasts.
Louis was chopping vegetables and looked up shyly as Eva entered. She allowed a moment of feigned anger before letting go and smiling at her deepest love. The scene was familiar to both, and Louis was relieved to know peace had returned.
Eva had brought the morning anger into their home, and they both knew that her dress and smile were the beginning of a long dance of forgiveness that would end when she managed to seduce him.
She looked across the counter full of fresh produce, oils and spices. “What can I do?” She loved cooking with her man. They shared a passion for incredible cuisine and knew how to build a meal together.
Louis acknowledged the peace offering. “You can make dessert: peach cobbler.”
Eva picked up a peach from the fruit bowl, squeezed and smelled it. Bright, golden and sinful; these peaches were gloriously sweet and syrupy. Louis always knew where to find the right ingredients. “Cobbler is perfect.”
Together, they prepared an elaborate, multi-course meal. Small portions were vital in maintaining desire and joy throughout the feast. Moon-apple and spinach salad. Salmon sashimi with ginger, seared with olive and sesame oil. Steamed asparagus covered in butter. White-truffle parmesan ravioli. Oven-roasted blackened halibut. And of course, the peach cobbler.
Cooking was an aphrodisiac for Eva. She glanced to Louis every moment she could and fought to steal his gaze with her posture. He focused straight ahead and chopped apple with the hands of a head chef. When he asked her to pass the oil, she bent more than necessary, looked away and brushed his skin with her fingertips. Louis noticed, and a smile let her know to behave. Eva’s favorite game was interrupting dinner preparations with lovemaking in the kitchen. She opened a bottle of chilled Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil and handed him a glass when he put the last pan in the oven. Louis wiped his hands, tossed the towel over his shoulder, and his look let Eva know that she could come close. Her body swelled with excitement. Eva swayed back and forth in a seductive dance while her fingertips started to hike up the bottom of her long silk dress.
She had never needed to make love this much in her entire life. Louis took a sip of wine and put his glass down on the counter.
The doorbell rang.
Eva looked to the clock. “Oh, no.”
Louis closed his eyes and reluctantly turned towards the door.
“Noooooooo!!!” whispered Eva half-jokingly. “Make them go away!!!”
Louis turned, grabbed Eva and pulled her tight. “I love you.”
Eva smiled. “I love you.”
They held each other until there was a second ring at the door.
The evening began.
During the next three hours, Eva, Louis and the four guests enjoyed an incredible meal that left each in a state of bliss.
Santy played classical guitar as Eva brought the desserts to the table. The precision and passion of every strophe brought chills down her spine. His ferocious talent was mesmerizing. Eva slid her fingers up the back of Louis’ neck.
As the last chord echoed in the room, the friends erupted into applause. Janet gave Santy a big kiss.
Louis was stunned. “You are unbelievable!”
He shrugged with humble confidence. “It is nothing that six hours a day for twenty-five years cannot teach.”
The steaming peach cobbler beckoned each of them. Eva gestured to everyone to eat and turned to Janet as she picked up her spoon. “Where did you two meet?”
“It’s embarrassing.” Eva loved Janet’s colorful stories. “I saw him perform a while back and became a little obsessed. I found out he gave private lessons, so I booked a two-hour beginner’s session. Instead of a guitar, I arrived with two bottles of wine and my best bra.”
Santy blushed and the table laughed at the ridiculousness of their friend. Janet put her hand under Santy’s chin and continued with a smile. “I still have not learned to play a single chord.”
The table all knew that Janet was telling the truth, and they loved her for it. One by one, their laughter turned into delicious grunts as they savored the dessert.
Phil directed attention back to the hosts. “Eva, Louis, you have outdone yourselves once again. You have to give us the recipe for this cobbler!! It is AMAZING!!!”
Sven added, “OH MY GOD YES! We need it! It is THE MOST amazing deliciousness I have ever experienced!” Eva loved Sven’s penchant for exaggeration. Everything they had ever prepared was ‘the-best-thing-ever.’
Phil contemplated his next bite and turned to the newest addition to the table. “Santy, I’ve known Louis for seventeen years. When I visited his parent’s house, his mom would always make us a new dessert, and every dessert had a story. Every dessert that Sven and I have shared with Louis has a story.” He turned to Louis. “So, what’s the story?”
Eva loved her partner for this family tradition; he always managed to surprise her. Louis feigned confusion, then relented. “I was in China last month and had dinner with a friend. He explained to me that in Taoist mythology, the Jade Emperor and his wife, the Queen Mother of the West, ensured the everlasting existence of the deities by inviting them to an extravagant banquet called the Feast of the Peaches. Somewhere on a Tian Shan mountainside in the west, there’s a peach tree of immortality, and it blooms only once every three-thousand years. The Queen Mother guards this tree, and legend has it that it will soon bloom again.
“So, this morning, I went to the market, and in the corner was a rickety booth that I had never seen before. An old, mysterious Chinese lady was there selling peaches. I’m not 100% certain, but I strongly suspect she’s the Queen Mother, and we’ve eaten some of her immortal peaches. Now, we’re destined to live forever.”
Janet picked up her empty plate and held it out to Eva. “Could I please have some more?” The whole table laughed. She then grabbed Santy’s plate and asked him to join her. “Come, honey; I wanna make mad love to you FOR-EV-ER!!!!”
Santy turned red, and the whole table enjoyed his continued embarrassment. Janet insisted. “Can you imagine having time to realize all of your dreams?!? Learn all musical instruments? Travel everywhere? Meet everyone? It would be AMAZING!!!”
Phil contemplated his bowl and responded in a more serious tone: “I love the story but living forever would be terrible. I mean, it’s the newness of experience that makes life great: the preciousness of time. We live our choices. But if we lived forever, no choice would have consequence or relevance; just change your mind a thousand years later. Can you imagine having already done everything? Having nothing new to taste?”
Sven interrupted and asked in his best sweetie-voice: “What about me? Do you want to choose me forever?”
Phil snuck into baby-talk and caressed Sven’s cheek. “I’ll choose you every time and always.” The table rejoiced. “But living forever would be awful.” Phil reached for the sugar bowl and took a cube between his fingers. He held it purposefully above an empty plate. “Did you know that one large cube of sugar has thirty-six thousand grains? If you imagine for a second that each grain represents one day, this cube contains a hundred years.” He then shaved off a tiny piece and let the sugar fall to his plate. “Most of us will not live to 100, so the amount of sugar that is left represents the days of an average life. This is the only wealth that matters: the days of our lives and how we choose to spend them.”
The cube was so small.
Phil twisted it in his fingers. “Today, half of my days are behind me.” He broke the cube in two and crushed one side, letting the grains fall. “I’m proud of those days, but they are only memories.” He looked to the dwindling remains. “The last bit of my life will probably be of limited health and capacity.” He scraped off a corner from the ever-shrinking shape. Eva stared depressingly at it.
Phil looked into the eyes of each of his dearest friends. “With this modest cube, I can imagine how valuable each and every grain is. I need to savor each moment to its fullest.” Phil put a single grain on his finger. “I’m happy with how I chose to spend this day: with you, with people I love. I do not wish for endless mountains of sugar, because then this grain, this day, this choice, would be infinitely less important.
“I love you all too much to wish for that.”
Eva considered the overflowing sugar bowl. She did not want to live forever.
Phil held the cube and asked Santy one of his famously provocative questions: “So what do you want most with your remaining days?”
Santy paused. “To play my music for people who appreciate it.”
Phil turned to Janet. “And you?”
Janet grew serious. “I want to give more of myself to others.”
Phil looked at Eva. “And you, Rock Star?”
Eva closed her eyes and hunched forward. Even amongst people she cared for deeply, she had never shared her baby thoughts. Her rock-star dreams were legendary, and she knew the answer everyone was expecting; the answer Louis was expecting. Eva looked at the meager cube in Phil’s fingers. Her voice cracked as she whispered: “I want a baby.”
Eyes widened, but no one made a sound. A tidal wave of pressure flowed out, freed from her body. It was replaced by warmth as Louis put his hand on her back. His love was clear and limitless.
Phil turned to Louis with a smile. “And what do you want?”
Louis looked Eva in the eye. He was ready to cry, and she felt a little bad for sharing in front of everyone. “A baby sounds good.”
After letting the couple enjoy the moment, Phil moved on and looked to Sven. “You’re my heart, and I don’t want to waste any more of these precious grains working in jobs we hate.” He explained to the table: “The earth is losing too much of its botanical diversity. We need to find ways to preserve nature’s wonders, and Sven had the idea to build a giant atrium and fill it with endangered plants from around the planet. It’s time for us to quit our jobs and follow this dream.” Phil turned back to his partner. “Is that what you want, my love?”
Sven grew a big mischievous smile. “Yes. And can I ask for a baby too?”
The table laughed as Sven had intended. But Louis didn’t laugh. He looked at Phil. “Do you want a baby, Phil?”
“Well, yes. If we could adopt or find someone to have our baby, I would love to raise a child. We have so much to give.”