“For ten years we here at the force, with the help of our friends at the HADD Institute, have been tracking the data and it is simply irrefutable. If you’ll check out this graph here you’ll…oh wait, no, wait sorry, here, here is the correct graph,” said Police Commissioner Randolph Elephanson as he fumbled with dwarfed remote in his grip. “If you’ll notice this trend, which began back 30 so odd years ago, it shows that Whales are a whopping 35% more likely to drive drunk. Not only that, but they are also 20% more likely to injure another species in crashes caused by drunk driving. The truly frightening part is this figure has grown exponentially in recent years.”
Elephanson was a bit of a fool but even Wendy had to admit he was one of the best commissioners the town ever had. He was angry when they needed anger, calm when they needed calm and always adept at telling the exact time for which. The problems of the city were still widespread, there was still work to be done, but the people believed in Elephanson.
Elephanson radiated confidence, from his long, slender nose and tiny, mournful eyes to his constantly twitching whip of a tail. Even his sharp, fierce tusks demanded far more respect than fear. He’d been commissioner now for about eleven years and though the job had already added significant girth to his wide frame and heavy creases to his tired face, he was determined as ever.
“The statistics speak for themselves,” he said as he slammed his heavy, rounded fist against the mahogany wood of his podium, his wide ears shaking with impatience. “I understand the pushback, I do. We do not aim to vilify an entire species. This is not the old days. There will be no mobs, there will be no rioting, but something must be done. That is why we are here, to take the measured and reasonable response. Whales are not evil, they have a problem.
“Now, let’s get down to business,” Elephanson said as he read off the minutes from last week’s meeting. “First off, I’d like to thank Ms. Orcina for being with us today. For those of you yet to hear her story, you are in for a treat. Few animals I’ve ever met can speak so insightfully on the subject at hand. We all know it isn’t easy, but sharing our stories can be truly essential. It is our only way to understand the toll this issue takes on those affected. Thank you, Wendy.”
Wendy didn’t look up. She heard the applause, she knew the looks of appreciation flying at her from every direction; Mr. Vulpe’s sharp face and Dr. Buckskin’s fatherly grin and old Mrs. Potamus’s kind eyes. She didn’t want to see them, not today.
She knew her speech was good. She would tell it with fervor and zeal, she would pull at every heartstring in the building and leave the crowd speechless. All despite the fact that she would be stinking drunk throughout the entire thing.
“We do not know what we’ve lost till we lose it and we do not how it is we lost it for much, much longer.”
This was how Wendy started, and it was one hell of an intro.
“I lost everything and it took me years to reconcile this lose, years to admit the truth. The truth is difficult. If it was easy we’d all know it and do it and live it each and every day. My name is Wendy Orcina and my husband, the love of my life and father to my son, was a Whale. My name is Wendy Orcina and my husband and son are now dead. My name is Wendy Orcina and I am a victim of Whale drunk driving.”
Of course, the crowd knew all about Barry. It’d only been a few years and Metazoa was a small town. Barry and Wendy were the perfect little nuclear family, the kind of couple who were good at parties, their cheery conversation nothing short of a ballet of polite prattle. The Orcinas were mainstays at every barbecue and cocktail party and card game in all of Metazoa. They were a Whale and Seal in love and everyone knew it.
Nobody had any idea.
“Barry was a good man, Barry was a good father, Barry was a hard worker and an honest husband, but he had a problem, a problem that eventually killed him and my son. All these things are true. I am not imagining the good parts of Barry to cover for the bad. We all know we face a problem, a problem with no easy solution, but we must all remember, no matter how much they’ve hurt us, no matter how deep their betrayal can feel, they are all still Animal.”
A short applause followed, a mixed reaction really. People agreed, of course, judgment wouldn’t help, but still, it’s hard to forgive, even harder to forget. This is why Wendy shared her story. She was betrayed, she lost everything in an instant and here she was, forgiving, moving on and pushing forward. Addressing the problem, yes, but not with anger and revenge but understanding.Wendy had an important role in steering this wobbly ship of activism, keeping it steady as the waves of anger crashed hard against its bow. Wendy could barely keep her footing in her high black heels because she finished off half a bottle of brandy on her way to the meeting.
“My story begins as I’m sure many of yours do; everything was normal and fine. I was happy. I was married to the man I loved and we had a beautiful, healthy little boy. Everything was just as it should have been. We went to work, we ate dinner as a family, we shared our days and we all loved each other very much. I didn’t know there was a problem. Or, at least, that’s what I told myself.”
She paused here for effect. She always paused here for effect. It worked like a charm. She looked around the room, seeing so many familiar faces, knowing they too were skilled in the art of self-denial, undeniably adept at jumping through the hoops of delusion and traversing the obstacle course of reality. They were nowhere close to as practiced as Wendy, but they weren’t half bad.
“There were signs. Of this, I have no doubt. I may not have seen them. I sure didn’t want to see them, but they were there. There were late nights and unanswered calls and slurred messages. I found a way, as so many of us do, to bend these facts to meet the truth I so desperately wished to hold onto; that nothing was wrong, that we were happy and healthy and nothing could break apart out perfect little family.”
There’d been a lot of those drunken messages. All hours of the night. They were usually apologetic, aggressively so. They made apology feel like a threat. Wendy couldn’t remember the specifics, but she knew the taste they left in her mouth the next morning. Stale anger, like a scratch in her throat from too many cigarettes. She and Barry never talked about the messages. It was one of their convenient little lies of omission. She’d been thankful for the silence at the time, now she cursed it.
“Dialogue. If you learn nothing more from my story, it’s this; a dialogue is the first step. We cannot solve this problem with anger or hatred. We must discuss these issues with level-headed dialogue or we can never hope to come to a solution. Barry and I never opened a dialogue. We let it fester in the dark like a fungus till it’s poisonous spores burst. Ignoring a problem is easy, railing against the culprit is easy, open and honest dialogue is hard, but it is our only hope.”
The intro was done, the preamble complete. It was time to get down to the nuts and bolts of the story, just after she takes a second to steady her blurring vision. Wendy wasn’t the only member of HADD to make these types of speeches. It was part of an initiative they started some years back when things were really ugly. There’d been the spike, the one that Elephanson reported earlier, and people were out for revenge. No more talk, no more workshops, they wanted swift government action against these damn Whales.
With Wendy, they hit the jackpot. Not only was she a victim of Whale drunk driving, not only was she married to said Whale, and not only did said Whale take down their young boy with him, but she was also a writer of three full-length novels of modest regard. For others in the program they assigned a writer to extract some kind of helpful narrative from all their heartache, but not with Wendy. She thrived in the role, spinning her tale so elegantly, giving the facts with artful flourishes of fancy and holding the whole thing together with regard to theme and structure. She was their star and she didn’t hate it.
“It was a Sunday when it all started, the rest of my life sealed in fate. It was a rainy morning, the kind of Sunday where you either curse the gloom or lean into its embrace and snuggle up with a good book and a cup of tea. Unfortunately, we had things to do, places to be, people to see, you know the deal. Life in a growing family doesn’t leave much time for books or tea or snuggling. There were chores and errands.
“Barry had been out the night before. A quiet one, but a nice one. We met up with a couple of friends at a place we all used to go when we were young, a nothing little dive bar with cheap food and nourishing memories. We did a little drinking, we did a little dancing, and everything in the universe seemed to be in its right place.
“He was taking a while in the shower. Maybe that should have been my first hint. But as I’m sure most of you know, hints are only obvious in hindsight. They only peak from behind their curtain after things go awry, after you spend countless hours replaying things in your head. No, the shower shouldn’t have tipped me off, but his eyes, they should have done it. Those of you who know Barry know he was quite the looker. I don’t mean to brag but I don’t mean not to brag either.”
Pause. Laughs. Lighten the mood a little before all the sadness. Perfect execution from Wendy Orcina.
“He was a very handsome Whale who, even far back into our high school days, did quite well with the ladies. Much of this could be attributed to those deep, dark eyes of his. They held a kind of beautiful enigma, both buoyantly youthful and profoundly wise. They had a way of seeing what you were thinking, of sensing you and wrapping you in calm contemptment. They held none of this power on this rainy Sunday morning, that should have been my first hint.
“He finally came downstairs to breakfast. We were already running late and I was bustling around the house in the kind of panicked frenzy so many mothers out there will recognize as the typical morning routine. I didn’t have time to check in on my husband, he was supposed to be able to take care of himself.
“I can still hear the crash of the coffee mug against the linoleum. For weeks after I would wake up in the middle of the night, that sound bouncing around the house, filling my brain with all those familiar feelings of remorse and regret.
“‘Get in the car, I’ll take care of it!’, that’s what I said. I told him, the drunk Whale who would eventually destroy my life in one foul swoop, to get in the car. I threw him the keys, I provided the power of his own destruction because I was in a hurry, because I was annoyed, because I wanted him out of my way. He stumbled out of the room without a word, embarrassed but still smart enough to know I was not to be trifled with this early in the morning. He was drunk and I couldn’t see it. Why couldn’t I see it? Did I not want to? Would it have been inconvenient? Why the fuck couldn’t I see it?”
Wendy didn’t mean to curse. There were kids in the audience. Young families peppered throughout the crowd. She couldn’t help it. She’d told this goddamn story so many times. She’d been a writer, a very decent one with a promising future. She told funny stories and happy stories and the occasional romantic story, she was sick and tired of repeating this godforsaken tragedy. Tragedies are boring. They’re one sided and obvious, there’s no room for nuance. She could feel the heat in her cheeks and the wobble in her knees. She’d done this speech drunk before, but never this drunk.
“I apologize, but even after all these years, it feels fresh. A fresh betrayal, a fresh ignorance and a fresh mistake,” impressive save, she thought. “I should have known better but that is not to say you should ever, for a second, put the blame on yourself. It is their fault. They made the decision. They knew they were drunk and they got behind the wheel. Barry looked at me in the passenger seat with those eyes, he looked in the rearview mirror at our thumb-sucking beauty of a son with those eyes and he made a choice. He twisted the keys and pulled out of the driveway and merged onto the 405 and…and…”
Another pause here. Again for effect. A little sniffle, the valiant effort to hold back tears. The tears were genuine the first couple times, even if it was only performance at this point. It was hard to put herself back into these moments. Harder than she thought it would be. She didn’t remember them as well as she pretended. They were more hazy shapes and colors, vague memories of mood, nothing as concrete as she desperately wished. They hurt more because of this ambiguity, this awful cloudiness. If only she could remember it all, she might be able to forget.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. It all happened so slow. We’d done it so many times before, the three of us off for a Saturday full of activity. I was calm by now, happy to be on our way. The rain was letting up, down to a light drizzle, the sun just starting to make its first appearance in the corners of the grey sky. Everything was fine, but it wasn’t.
“We were getting off I-76, the stop up by the King of Prussia Mall. We had to go IKEA, we needed the latest Whatsinghouzen or whatever for the family room. It all seems so silly in hindsight, the things we need so desperately, the things that seem more important than the people we need them for.”
What the Orcinas actually needed was a new lamp for the family room. Wendy was never quite sure why she left out this specific. She knew it well. It was one of the things that haunted her, that damn lamp. It was an accident. Why did Barry always have to make her accidents seem like betrayals? She broke the lamp and he made her feel like a criminal for weeks. Why couldn’t he just get over it? He was so indignant, so righteous about it. So she had a little too much to drink and broke a lamp. Get over it.
“I like to believe it was the first sign, that subtle swerve out of the lane and onto the exit ramp. I tell myself it was the first sign, but that’s not true. I should have known for hours, days, months, years. It was always coming toward our little family, that creeping calamity, waiting to shatter us forever.”
So indignant, so right all the time. Barry and his deep voice and his fatherly lessons. Wendy knew right and wrong, he didn’t need to point it out every two fucking seconds. She was an adult, not some little kid who needed to be taught a leson.
“It wasn’t the first swerve, but the next, the overcorrection. Isn’t that just life. It’s not the first mistake that kills us, but how we react. We can either fix things or lean in to the horror and lose ourselves for good.”
Wendy didn’t know if it was the first swerve or the second or the third, she didn’t remember a thing except for the noise of metal ripping metal. From then it was quiet. Spinning, twirling, floating silence. She didn’t have time to look over at Barry, but she imagined his face. Disappointment, that nagging, sanctimonious disappointment.
If he was so smart why didn’t he see it? Those beady little, know-it-all eyes didn’t see a thing. He just laid down life lessons and spoke in banal truisms. The lamp, the coffee cup, the eyes. Why the fuck wasn’t he paying any attention.
“It didn’t hurt. That was the strangest part. I was injured, sure, broken bones, cuts, bruises, a concussion, but it was strange. It didn’t hurt a bit, it was like an injury in a dream.”
Fuck that, it hurt like shit and Wendy knew it. She was pinned against the windshield and her head was ringing, the edges of her vision billowing, nothing in her view staying put.
“I didn’t want to look. I didn’t hear them struggling so I guess maybe I knew, but still, looking was too difficult. Once I looked it was real. Once I looked my world would never be the same.”
Barry wasn’t wearing his seatbelt. He was thrown against her, not the faintest hint of breath in his heavy body. Her son was dead. She didn’t have to look twice. She didn’t have time to look twice. She can still remember the smell of gasoline, the smell that woke her up, removing her from her haze. She knew she had to get out before the explosion.
“The silence was haunting. We were on the side of the road, having flipped over the guardrail and into the line of trees bordering the exit. No one would have had time to get there. Nothing but instinct that got me out of the car in time. ”
Wendy was only twenty or so yards away when the explosion happened. It was like nothing she’d ever seen, the flames jumping, the hulk of twisted metal bouncing off the ground with a pop. Her mind was racing. She was surprised how quickly things started to take shape, the facts of the matter finding their place.
“It wasn’t long till it was all gone. The car, my husband, my son, my family. The car was unrecognizable. Nothing but crisp, burnt metal. I couldn’t look away. I just watched it smolder. I watched my life fall apart piece by piece, the sadness slowly creeping through my bones.”
Wendy didn’t have long. She had to make a decision and she had to make it fast. She had a blanket around her, the paramedics offered her water and the cops cleared the area. She had options. It was Schrodinger’s accident. The cops would question her and whatever she said would be final, but in that seemingly infinitesimal moment, there were options.
“The cops came, the ambulance came, they checked me for injuries. Nothing serious aside from, of course, a shattered heart. They took down the facts, I couldn’t lie to myself any longer. I knew what happened, what had been happening in my home for months. I knew the mistakes leading to that day. The mistakes both of us made. His drinking and my silence, the festering fear ruining everything.”
The cop was checking the scene. There was nothing to check, they’d have to look for teeth to confirm what she already knew. She made her decision. It wasn’t easy but it wasn’t all that hard either. They would believe her, why wouldn’t they? She was a distraught mother and wife who just lost everything, all because of a drunk Whale. It wasn’t the first such story and it wouldn’t be the last. A tidy little tale of unimaginable loss.
“The next couple weeks were the hardest of my life. I couldn’t be in my house, I couldn’t be out, I couldn’t sleep, and I cried throughout my waking hours. I buried my son and my husband. I mourned their death. I wrestled with myself to come to terms with my role. As I’ve said, blame doesn’t help. It doesn’t raise the dead and it doesn’t ease the pain. Blame can only eat at you, destroying the future before you get a chance move on.”
Wendy blamed everyone. She blamed her therapist, she blamed the cops, she blamed the paramedics, she blamed her mother, she blamed her father, she blamed her editor, she blamed every Whale in the goddamn world, she blamed SAAD, she blame commissioner Elephanson, she blamed IKEA, she blamed these saps in the audience with their pitiful little stares.
They wanted to so badly to believe. Sure, she was the one who’d lied, but they believed it. They wanted to, they were happy to jump on the first explanation. They made it easy for Wendy. They made it the only choice that made sense. Another Whale screwing up, another Whale drunk driving. Open and shut case. Wendy couldn’t stand to hear one more apology, one more ounce of understanding.
“My husband and the love of my life killed himself and my son. It wasn’t on purpose, but it wasn’t an accident either. Events like this are made up of a thousand little mistakes and the moment we realize this, the better off we’ll be.
“I’m happy to share my story with you today so all of you can learn how to identify these types of problems. Whales are not evil, they are not setting out to do this to families like mine and yours, but they have a problem. It is our job to help our fellow animals like my husband Barry. To set them right before they have a chance to do so much wrong.”
Wendy could recite this ending in her sleep, which was good because right now she felt like she was going to puke all over the podium. Barry had a problem alright, but it wasn’t drinking. Wendy never saw Barry take so much as a sip without that juvenile little puckered-lip wince. His problem wasn’t drinking, his problem was being married to Wendy, his problem was being too much of stand-up husband to put a stop to all of this before she had a chance to do what she did.
Wendy hated Barry, hated him for how easy he made it all. Why did he give her the keys? Why didn’t he notice her eyes or the coffee cup or the empty wine bottle in the bathroom? Why didn’t he stop her after the first swerve or the second? Why couldn’t he have let her die? Why couldn’t he make it out of that fucking wreck? Why could he be sitting up here spinning this yarn for all these tearful eyes? Why couldn’t he be alive?
“This isn’t about punishment, this isn’t about retribution, this is about love. Only through love can we break this vicious cycle. Whales need our help and we must be strong enough to give it. It doesn’t have to be like this!”
The crowd stood and cheered. Wendy waved and gave a little bow. She almost fell over but caught herself on the podium. Wendy smiled and went home.
It had to be like this.