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Two Alleviations and an Exacerbation

Chapter One: The Puzzle Box

Hernando and Jane are scientists and co-workers. Hernando is in his twenties and has thick lustrous black hair. Jane is in her fifties and has thinning red hair. Their job is to put experimental subjects in a series of more and more difficult puzzle boxes and chart their progress. Puzzle Box 1 is solved by recognizing a pattern in red and blue levers. Puzzle Box 5 is solved by making friends with a fawn and making it eat out of your hands. Puzzle Box 8 is solved by standing firm in the face of cruel and unfair accusation. Hernando says that he and Jane are in a puzzle box and the solution to it is on the tip of his tongue. Sometimes he thinks the solution is to announce that he has figured out he is in a puzzle box to their boss Beatrice. Jane says she is undecided on the question of whether they are actually in a puzzle box, but she is confident that if they are simply saying so to Beatrice is not the solution.

Chapter Two: The Tea

Wai-hong has taught himself not to think about something that happened to him three years ago when he still lived with his mother and that was very painful. Right now we are peeking in on him drinking a cup of hot tea after his roommates have gone to sleep. The steam is rising from the surface of the water and we can see his face through the steam. We wonder whether the anxiety that he feels as he struggles not to remember what happened at his mother’s house is worse or better than remembering it. We conclude, correctly, that good and bad are rather ambiguous terms and that there is certainly a dimension along which the anxiety is not worse than the memory.

Chapter Three: What Tamar Did at Swarthmore

Desmond is preparing to tell Tamar that he can’t continue their relationship because he learned what she did at Swarthmore, and he cannot have a relationship with a bad person. He tells her. She cries, she hugs him, they start to kiss, he pushes her away. She says, first that what she did at Swarthmore doesn’t make her a bad person. Desmond argues that it does. Finally Tamar says that it doesn’t make any sense — why can’t Desmond make love with somebody who is a bad person? Desmond says he is afraid that he will become bad. Tamar says if making love with her can make him into a bad person, maybe he is one already, and he should face his fear of being a bad person, rather than withdrawing from life. He continues the relationship and this morning Tamar suggested they both try to seduce the new graduate student, Tella, because if they don’t it will always be between them (them being Desmond and Tamar) — the question of what it would have been liked if they shared their bed with Tella. Desmond is sure that he would have wondered about Tella even if he had never met Tamar, and therefore that when she, Tamar, said that his fear of becoming bad was misplaced, she was right, since either he had been bad all along, or he was not bad now. He is pulling on his socks and squeezing his feet into his shoes and deciding it is time to leave Tamar and put out feelers for work at another college. Any place on the Eastern seaboard would be fine. Possibly even Swarthmore.

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