By Virtue of What Is Imagined

We give ourselves over to what is by nature mysterious, imagining the unknowable, and then miraculously knowing by virtue of what is imagined.
—Tim O’Brien, “The Magic Show”

“I’m an engineer”

I was on the eighth floor, down the hall from where Alison and I were contained for the forty-eight-hour period after Samuel was born, searching through the cabinets of the Refreshments area for coffee filters, finding them beneath the stainless-steel sink, tucked behind two large cans of pineapple juice. Samuel was still hooked up to the CPAP and IV, still had his heart and respiratory rate and blood-oxygen level monitored in the steamy back corner of the NICU. I was being monitored by a laminated sign—“Employees Only Are Allowed to Make Coffee”—as I popped the airy pouch of New England’s Best and dumped it into the flat-bottom filter. It was almost instantaneous that the nurse from the eighth-floor reception desk appeared—the same wide-waisted woman who was so smiley and polite when my wife and I were shown to our Newborn and Recovery room (sans newborn; no signs of recovery), so graciously offering to send someone to see Alison, who hadn’t stopped crying since they whisked our boy away.

“I’m sorry, sir,” she said, her index finger flashing up at the sign, “but employees only are allowed to make coffee.

Then it happened, her smile triggering something spurious in my brain, and with the calmest, steadiest gaze I had available to me, I replied: “I’m an engineer. My father designed the modern-day percolator!” Then I shook the remaining grounds onto the existing anthill and slapped the filter into place, snapping the power button On—so satisfied at my act of defiance that residual excitement trickled into my thighs, and with the first gurgle of coffee, I felt a sleepy spark of life rising up inside me.

But this was the last bit of genuine feeling that would come my way for a while. And the reaction did not last. My defiance was met with a smile (the coffee was already brewing, why exacerbate the situation?). “I’m sure it’s a task that’s well within your capabilities,” she said. “Particularly since you’re an engineer,” her head nodding with the emphasis of the word. “But it’s our policy. For safety and strength. Of the coffee, that is. Those here in the wee hours like our coffee a certain way. It’s amazing how fussy some of us get over a little thing like that. When the hour’s a bit past reasonable, that is.” Then she nodded again and said, “Next time give me a holler; I’m always happy to help out,” and went smiling back to the reception desk.

Perhaps it was sympathy over my son or my wife or the silliness of the coffee restrictions, but there was essentially no challenge to my claim, no “What firm?” or “Where do you practice?” or “What was your father’s name? I was reading about the modern-day percolator just the other day!” And it had always been the fear of a follow-up—the probing of lies that unearth other lies—that convinced me to stick with the more governable truth. Only now with my son in the NICU and my wife in tears, it felt good to disobey. Like a rebellious child, I longed to act out again.

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