False Dichotomy: Prologue
Do I believe in ghosts? I didn’t used to.
About six years before my mom was randomly murdered, she said that she believed in “spirituality.” She couldn’t define what that meant. Dad didn’t tell her that she was being stupid. No, he gave her his worst: she was being irrational.
“Spirits are inherently irrational,” Mom replied. She kissed my little brother Ben on the head as he read the Wall Street Journal. He was, like, seven at the time and seemed to know more about the Federal Reserve’s goings-on than Dad (or Mom or I) did.
“They’re raising interest rates,” Ben announced. “The economy is probably improving.”
Mom kissed him again, half motherly affection and half showing off. Even then she was the only one who could touch Ben. He would fidget away from Dad and me. Ben and Mom were in their own weird little bubble together sometimes. And still are, as it turns out.
“You’re inherently irrational, Julia,” Dad said. Then he got all pissy and went into the kitchen to make a sandwich and a mess.
I was always Dad’s good little student, as much as I could be. When he told me that paper money would sink the American economy, I’d repeat this theory back to perfect strangers while they were trying to buy an ice cream. When Dad tried to teach me his own made-up version of jiu-jitsu—yes, Dad’s special nonsense jiu-jitsu, Jesus Christ, I called it jiu-Dadsu for the love of everything—I tried to learn; Dad said that in this day and age a girl should be able to flip a potential enemy onto his back. This girl never quite could, but she surely tried. And it really seemed to irritate Mom that I preferred Dad’s hobbies (flipping enemies, eating sandwiches) to the ones she tried to steer me toward, like group athletics, playing an instrument, or washing my hair. And so, when Dad said that ghosts were irrational and therefore didn’t exist, I took his side against Mom’s.
What’s funny about that? My name means “spiritual life,” if you spell it without the “y,” which is only on there because Mom thought it was cuter that way. Dad likes to tell me that he didn’t know that’s what Zoey, or “Zoe,” meant when he named me. He likes to say that he only knew about a book he liked with that name in the title, and a French nuclear reactor that also shares my name. The first nuclear reactor in France, in fact. Dad is into both books and nuclear power and says it’s a “crying shame” and a “travesty” that the “no-goodnick environmentalists” are standing in the way of human progress.
About a month after Mom was murdered, I woke up desperately sad, realizing I’d never find out what she really thought of the universe’s mysterious and ethereal ways. We’d never argue over the violin or the piano. We’d never share a private laugh over Dad’s overbearing ridiculousness. I wished, wish, that instead of taking the opportunity to be on Dad’s side—to follow him into the kitchen and steal a little bit of his PB&J—I’d stayed with her and Ben.
I’m not sure if Dad’s right about paper money either, for that matter.
The point is, that same day I woke up so sad, it started looking like I would have the chance to know Mom’s beliefs on the afterlife. Better yet, it seemed as if I might glimpse her experience of the afterlife, so long as my little brother asked her the right questions in his dreams. Ben announced at breakfast that he and Mom communicated while he was asleep.
It’s worth mentioning that he made this proclamation in the same dull monotone that he says everything, including his commentary on the economy.
Apparently Mom and Ben have kept up a dialogue since. Either that or my little brother is crazy. I say this like it’s either/ or, but I suppose it’s really not. It’s what my dad would say is a “false dichotomy.” It’s probably not fair to suggest that little Ben is crazy. The doctors prefer terms like “autistic spectrum.” Or worse: “Neurodiverse,” as Dad would argue.
Or he would have argued, before he got himself kidnapped.
Where is John Galt? Chapter One
I’m sitting next to Brian Keegan in English class, trying to make a chair levitate.
“The book said you should try to make it vibrate first,” I say to Brian. “Then, once it’s vibrating, you can lift it off the ground. With your thoughts.” I show him a peek of You Can Levitate, a book I found at the new age bookstore up the street from my house.
Brian nods. The chair is motionless.
Kids at The Shenandoah School are a lot more tolerant of almost everything than kids at my old school were. Up until this year (my senior year, no less), I went to a huge public school in Warwick, Rhode Island. You had to be careful to wear the right brand of jeans there. You could not speak openly about your levitation goals. Or else—and, really, this is just conjecture, but I think I’m right—the school’s meanest and prettiest girls would say, very loudly, something along the lines of “How’s your levitating going? Are you levitating very much these days? Are you feeling wicked psychic right now?”
At The Shenandoah School in Alexandria, Virginia? We all wear uniforms, so the jeans issue is nil. Nobody uses “wicked” as an adverb. And the kids here have mostly been going to school together since kindergarten. Mostly, they just seem frigging psyched that some new girl—me, that is—turned up, giving them someone new to talk to. About psychic phenomena. What I still haven’t figured out is if these kids’ politeness means that they like me or not. The rich are different, that’s all I know. At least these ones are.
“I don’t think I believe in levitation,” I whisper to Brian after a few more minutes of brow-furrowed concentration.
“Me neither,” Brian says back. “I had a theory that ghosts and other purely ‘psychical’ phenomenon could exist in a manner of speaking—” he makes air-quotes “—due to the conservation of energy principle. But my uncle runs the history of the universe lab at Georgetown. He told me that there is no ‘missing energy—’” again, with the fingers “—that would have to be accounted for with something like a ghost.” This is how Shenandoah kids are. They are willing to contemplate the existence of ghosts up until their history-of- the-universe-studying uncles tell them that there is no missing energy to account for. Then they are still willing to experiment, to see if the chair will in fact levitate anyway. There is a weird, worldly earnestness that I am still trying to get used to. Also: the money. My family doesn’t have tons of money—not like these kids—though I’m guessing we have more since we moved to Alexandria, Virginia. And it’s always been enough that I can buy a couple of pairs of decent jeans every year. My dad is, or was, a corporate auditor. I do not know what this means exactly, except that I want to go to sleep whenever he starts talking about work.My mom used to do a little “consulting” (never clear about what), but she mostly stayed at home, hovering from a quiet distance over me and my special little brother, Ben, the genius who can’t stand anyone touching him now that she is dead and Roscoe is missing.
Mom was killed in January. She’d been out one night with Roscoe in Georgetown. Mom liked to drive to different neighborhoods, especially across the river in DC, to take Roscoe for walks. She said it was like being on a little vacation, going for a walk somewhere new. And what do you know? She walked right into a random mugging that got out of control. The police caught the guy; he was convicted; now he’s rotting in prison somewhere. I ignored the court proceedings—I can barely remember what the guy looked like. Fortunately all of that ugly legal aftermath stuff went very quickly.
And during that time, honestly, I focused on Roscoe. He ran away during the attack and was never found. I am an atheist, just like Dad taught me to be, but I still pray, in the most atheistic way possible, that Roscoe is alive somewhere. We’re still looking for him. He may have been taken in by a Georgetown family, in which case he is better off than he was when he was our dog. Or maybe he’s lost in Rock Creek Park, or down by the Potomac, or along the Canal . . . Ben keeps me posted on the staggeringly low odds of lost dog recovery. “Fewer than one in one thousand. And the odds get worse when the dog goes missing in the context of a murder.” When I failed to react appreciatively to this information— Who doesn’t love information?—he finally said, “Don’t you want to know the truth?”
“There’s always the one in a thousand,” I replied. “I said fewer than one in a thousand.”
Now I feel myself starting to cry again. I thought I was numb enough not to cry in school anymore, but once more I realize that I will never see Roscoe again, just like I will never see Mom again. It would be a great time for the chair to fly away because that would certainly take my mind off these things. I’d take even a little jiggle.
Nothing. Stupid effing book. You cannot levitate. “Excuse me,” I say to Brian.
I exit the classroom as calmly as I can. A girl named Anne touches my hand as I pass. My private school classmates all came to my mom’s funeral, even though I barely know them. Some of their parents are diplomats, so they know from propriety. Others are lawyers and they know from arguments and legal rights and estate planning and stuff. Point is that they all managed to turn up at the funeral and say things that were meant, I believe, to be comforting and correct. ln the hall, I hurry past the headmaster’s office, point to my tearing eyes, then finally dash into the girls bathroom to heave for a bit before splashing water on my face.
I still don’t believe in ghosts. But I wish I did. Then I could be haunted by Mom the way Ben is. Maybe our relationship could still develop.
People—mostly teachers or other grown-ups who think they are being therapeutic—ask me what Mom was like. I give them the basics: she was taller than me, more elegant. She was in her forties but looked younger. She has a younger brother, my uncle Henry, who lives with his wife on an alpaca farm in Rhode Island. Then they inevitably ask, “But what was she like?”
There’s a story I like to tell those people. They usually stop asking questions about her, or about anyone else in my family, once they’ve heard it.
When I was about six and my brother was about three, my father brought home a golden retriever puppy he named Galt. At the time, my dad thought that “galt” meant gold in German. (It doesn’t.) No, it’s the name of one of the characters in my dad’s favorite book, Atlas Shrugged. As it turns out, my dad loves dogs and freedom and certain weirdo books but is not so terrific with languages.
Your dad probably read you books like The Giving Tree when you were a kid. My dad did read me The Giving Tree once, calling it “evil” in that it “promotes the immoral destruction of the self.” (I was four.) He preferred Atlas Shrugged, which is basically about how rich people shouldn’t pay taxes. He has explained to me a lot over the course of my seventeen years that taxes are “slavery.” People are only “free when they act as they want to act.” Perfect for toddlers—Is my sarcasm coming through?—Atlas Shrugged is also the novelized explanation of the writer Ayn Rand’s “objectivist” philosophy of “rational self-interest.” In other words: extreme selfishness.
Try to get your mind around that a minute. Try to imagine your father preaching the virtues of extreme selfishness. Now imagine being four, the most selfish age in the world. Imagine trying to understand objectivism. Imagine trying to understand anything other than wanting to play and eat ice cream. (So I guess I was a good objectivist even without knowing it.) Over the years Dad tried to explain objectivism in less abstract terms. He said that people should be able to buy what they want and act how they want without the government or other people getting in their way. Interestingly, for all this, I still wasn’t allowed to set my own bedtime.
Anyway, John Galt is the mysterious hero of Atlas Shrugged. Most of the book’s other characters know his name but don’t know who he is. They spend a lot of time asking “Who is John Galt?” One day I came home from first grade and heard a real-life spin-off of this. It was my dad yelling: “Galt! Galt! Where is Galt? Where is Galt?”
My mom came out of the kitchen, where she had been preparing an intricate meal that no one would appreciate. The kitchen was her sanctuary, her refuge: a place to cook for people who couldn’t have cared less about food’s subtleties. She wiped her hands on her elegant pants and said, “Galt is living on a farm in Scituate now.”
“What? What? Scituate? My dog is in Scituate?” “Where’s Scituate?” I asked.
“It’s really far from here!” Dad said. “Near Boston,” Mom explained. “Jesus!” Dad said.
Calmly, my mom explained—once again—that she did not have time to deal with a puppy while also raising two children, one of whom was already showing signs of being able to recite the phone book while completely lacking interpersonal or consistent potty skills.
“So you just gave away my dog?” Dad protested, his voice rising. “You gave away my Galt? And now he’s near goddamn Boston?”
“Jacob, I didn’t give Galt away,” she said, exasperated. “He’s purebred.” She handed my father a check. Dad, when he tells the story, likes to say that it was for fifty dollars. I don’t remember how much it was for. I was six.
“This really takes selfishness to a whole new level,” Dad muttered. “Even Ayn Rand wouldn’t go this far.” Then he turned to me. “Zoey, put on your shoes, we’re going for a walk.”
He attached the check to Galt’s leash, which had not been sent to Scituate, and made me take the check for a walk with him around the neighborhood. Mom went back into the kitchen to craft the perfect meal no one would want to eat. Ben rearranged the refrigerator magnets into geometric shapes.
Like I said, once people hear that story, they generally keep quiet on the subject of what my mom was really like.
On that walk, Dad talked about capitalism and pets. “Yes, they are unproductive. But they are very soothing. And they are primarily interested in themselves. Ayn Rand kept cats, you know.” (I did not. At that time, I honestly still thought Ayn Rand was a family friend, just one I’d never met in person.) Of course, we did later get Roscoe when we moved to Alexandria. Roscoe, the husky, named for no one in particular. Dad and I were finally able to convince Mom that it was the right time, right place—dog walkers being a “thing” (they weren’t back when we got Galt) and me big and responsible enough to help out, at least in theory. And Mom ended up loving Roscoe. Loved taking him for walks not just across the river, but all around Old Town, where she studied our neighborhood’s pre-colonial architecture and mused about the Civil War’s lingering presence. (The first deaths of the Civil War happened right near our townhouse, in a place that is now a luxury hotel.) Loved brushing him, buying him treats. She kissed and cuddled him in a way that she never did with the rest of us, not even Ben.
There’s another story about my mom, one that I never tell: when I got my first period, she asked me if I needed her to take me to the doctor to be fitted for an IUD. I was eleven. I was an underdeveloped, shy girl who liked horses and books about girl detectives. Who hated to practice kicking and punching and backflips with my dad but still worshipped him enough to do those things anyway. I did not need an IUD. What I needed was a hug, a lesson in how to use pads, and a conversation about how to tell Dad, gently but firmly, that I was never going to be able to flip a grown man over my puny back.
At least Mom was a little better with Ben. She doted on him in a weird, distant, micromanaging sort of way. For example, she wouldn’t care what he was doing for hours on end, and then suddenly she would become very concerned that he eat some kale. It fell on my weak and baffled shoul- ders to try to mother him in matters not having to do with bitter greens: homework, laundry, doctors, wearing shoes on the correct feet, and so on. But he still wouldn’t let me touch him. Just Mom. The older I got, the worse things got between Mom and me, especially in the year before she died. (Died, meaning: was randomly killed. The word “died” somehow helps, like it was cancer or something, a slow and inevitable burn.) We yelled at each other about everything. If I talked too much. If I didn’t talk enough. If was spending too much time practicing how to tie a rope into thirty different knots at Dad’s bizarre insistence. Thankfully Dad seemed to approve of the way I lived my life, so long as I pretended to agree with 95 percent of what he said, but then gave 5 percent selfish “objectivist” pushback.
I figured we’d work it out. Once I went to college and Mom and I saw each other just a few weeks a year, we’d have a routine. We’d settle into one of those healthy and enjoyable mom/daughter relationships that involve a lot of shopping and silent knowing smiles over tea together. But unless there are ghosts, and she is one—and ghosts can shop—that’s not going to happen. Not even Ben believes that.
So, one more splash of water in the bathroom mirror. One more brave face for my new schoolmates. One more attempt to make sense of the life I never really understood to begin with. At times like these (and I hate myself for it), I wonder if Ben actually has it easier than I do.
* * *