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'We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves' excerpt

"We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves," by Karen

"We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves," by Karen Joy Fowler. Credit: Plume


"We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves," by Karen Joy Fowler


So the middle of my story comes in the winter of 1996. By then, we’d long since dwindled to the family that old home movie foreshadowed — me, my mother, and unseen but evident behind the camera, my father. In 1996, ten years had passed since I’d last seen my brother, seventeen since my sister disappeared. The middle of my story is all about their absence though if I hadn’t told you that, you might not have known. By 1996, whole days went by in which I hardly thought of either one.

1996. Leap year. Year of the fire rat. President Clinton had just been re-elected; this would all end in tears. Kabul had fallen to the Taliban. The Siege of Sarajevo had ended. Charles had recently divorced Diana.

Hale-Bopp came swinging into our sky. Claims of a Saturn-like object in the comet’s wake first surfaced that November. Dolly, the cloned sheep, and Deep Blue, the chess-playing computer program, were superstars. There was evidence of life on Mars. The Saturn-like object in Hale-Bopp’s tail was maybe an alien spaceship. In May of ’97, thirty-nine people would kill themselves as a prerequisite to climbing aboard.

Against this backdrop, how ordinary I look. In 1996, I was twenty-two years old, meandering through my fourth year at the University of California, Davis, and still maybe only a junior or maybe a senior, but so thoroughly uninterested in the niceties of units or requirements or degrees that I wouldn’t be graduating any time soon. My education, my father liked to point out, was wider than it was deep. He said this often.

But I saw no reason to hurry. I’d no particular ambitions beyond being either widely admired or stealthily influential — I was torn between the two. It hardly mattered, as no major seemed to lead reliably to either.

My parents, who were still paying my expenses, found me aggravating. My mother was often aggravated those days. It was something new for her, analeptic doses of righteous aggravation. She was rejuvenated by it. She’d recently announced that she was through being translator and go-between for me and my father; he and I had hardly spoken since. I don’t remember minding. My father was a college professor himself and a pedant to the bone. Every exchange contained a lesson, like the pit in a cherry. To this day, the Socratic method makes me want to bite someone.

Autumn came suddenly that year, like a door opening. One morning I was bicycling to class when a large flock of Canada geese passed overhead. I couldn’t see them or much of anything else, but I heard the jazzy honking above me. There was a tule fog off the fields and I was wrapped inside it, pedaling through clouds. Tule fogs are not like other fogs, not spotty or drifting, but fixed and substantial. Probably anyone would have felt the risk of moving quickly through an unseen world, but I have, or had as a child, a particular penchant for slapstick and mishap, so I took the full thrill from it.

I felt polished by the wet air and maybe just a little migratory myself, just a little wild. This meant I might flirt a bit in the library if I sat next to anyone flirtable or I might daydream in class. I often felt wild back then; I enjoyed the feeling, but nothing had ever come of it.

At lunchtime I grabbed something, probably grilled cheese, let’s say it was grilled cheese, in the school cafeteria. I was in the habit of leaving my books on the chair next to me where they could be quickly moved if someone interesting came by, but would discourage the uninteresting. At twenty-two I had the callowest possible definition of interesting and, by the measure of my own calipers, was far from interesting myself.

From "We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves"  by Karen Joy Fowler. Reprinted by arrangement with PLUME, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, a Penguin Random House Company. Copyright Karen Joy Fowler, 2014.

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