The Horse Latitudes by Alex Ortolani
On my 37th birthday, while sitting on the toilet, I decided to cull my life.
I started first thing the next morning. Getting rid of old cell phones felt liberating. Tossing my childhood bottle-cap collection seemed practical. Pitching threadbare socks—which were all the socks I owned—was luxurious. I literally yelped for joy after heaving an old 32” tube television into an alley dumpster.
My son has been more difficult.
“Jake,” I say, “do you think Mark’s parents would let you live with them?”
“Wy-ell,” he says in his nine-year-olds high-pitched drawl. “May-beeee.”
“What do they have, like, four kids?” I ask.
“Three,” he says. “But one of them is huge.”
“How big is the apartment?”
He pulls his arms in tight and bugs his eyes out. “I....can’t....breathe,” he says.
“What,” I say, “we live in a mansion?”
On Tuesday, I fill three bags of clothes for the Salvation Army. I leave myself five work shirts, five work pants, and jeans for the weekends. I consider establishing a sock-free European style, but after developing blisters in a matter of hours decide to pick up a 6-pack of golden toes.
Jake, my assistant in disposal, chooses two ties for me to keep. One has elephants on it, and the other is pink.
“I need at least one for work meetings,” I plead.
He settles on a solid brown number that fans out wide toward the bottom.
“Deal,” I say.
On Wednesday morning we pitch books I’ve had since freshman year of college. Thursday afternoon it’s all the cds. On Friday, I hesitate a moment before letting go of three photo albums, then let them drop into the bin with a thud.
“Goodbye, memories,” I say dramatically.
“Dad,” Jake says, “they’re all on your computer.”
Since my wife goes to work exhausted and returns near-comatose, Cynthia has not noticed anything beyond the usual spring cleaning.
“The apartment is looking great,” she says on Friday night as we drink wine and Jake plays a video game with farm animals and spaceships. “How was vacation?”
“Very en-lightening,” I say.
“All we did was clean,” Jake huffs.
“And go to the zoo,” I counter. “And the science museum, and the playground every day.”
“Yeah, well,” Jake says, “I hope you’ve got a shirt that matches with pink.”
On Monday, I assess my stuffed cubicle at the office. Out go the old newspapers and magazines. Bit by bit, I dump reports and assessments and annual evaluations. Out go all the pens but one. Out goes a chipped mug and a bobble-head Rod Blagojevich. Out sales receipts I will never claim. Out business cards of contacts I will never contact.
The more that goes the easier it gets. Out go ten years of passes to annual sales conferences. Out legal pads half-full of doodles and notes such as “don’t assume they know what you know they know.” Out little batting trophies for the company softball team and white ribbons for meeting, not exceeding, sales’ goals. Out a tiny Eiffel Tower from Paris and out a little Mao clock from Beijing.
From now on, just one photo of Jake and Cynthia, and just one bottle of white-out.
“The man runs a tight-ship.”
This is Chuck Harlittle. He is wearing one of his patent bow ties and holding a steaming mug of herbal tea.
“I’m cleaning house,” I say.
“Mid-life crisis,” Chuck says. “We all have them.”
“Honestly,” I say, “what kind of person drinks herbal tea at 8 a.m.?”
He winks, then carefully places a quarterly report on the floor by my feet.
“Wouldn’t want to clutter up your desk,” he says.
Before I started throwing things out, my wife and I were always having the same conversation. It went:
“We should start tomorrow,” she’d say. “No more putting stuff off.”
“It’s now or never,” I’d say. “We start tomorrow.”
“I am going to wake up early and paint,” she’d say.
“I’m never going to forget to kiss you on the way out in the morning,” I’d say.
“I’m going to come to bed earlier so we can make love,” she’d say.
“I’m going to get in bed the minute I get home to wait for that,” I’d say.
“I’m going to stop wearing high heels,” she’d say. “God, do I hate high heels.”
“I’m going to get up early tomorrow and take Jake for a run in the stroller,” I’d say.
“Hasn’t he outgrown that?” she’d ask.
“Probably,” I’d say. “Maybe he can run with me.”
“I don’t know,” she’d say. “He’s so un-athletic. I know he doesn’t want to enroll in that afterschool soccer thing, but maybe we should make him.”
“Yeah,” I’d say, “you’re right. He’ll probably end up loving it.”
“Can you call tomorrow?” Cynthia would ask.
“Yeah, but I should write it down. You know how I am. Oh, wait, tomorrow I’m traveling. But is there a deadline? Let me look it up.”
“Not on the blackberry,” she’d say, “the blackberry takes forever. Use the computer.”
“The blackberry is fine, really, you’re always so down on the blackberry.”
And the moment would be gone. And the next morning we’d skip our new plans because we had stayed up too late and forget to kiss on the way out.
Then, on my 37th birthday, while using the bathroom at a friend’s apartment, I took the Penguin Dictionary of Geographic Terms out of the magazine rack and read:
The Horse Latitudes: Two high-pressure belts characterized by low winds at 30° lattitude north and south of the equator. In the Northern Hemisphere, sailing ships carrying horses from Spain to the New World in the 16th century would often stall, and the crew would throw the animals overboard to lighten the load and take pressure of water supplies.
I tore out the page and stuck it in my back pocket.
On Saturday, I get up early to drag my favorite sofa chair down the stairs and onto the curb with a sign that reads: Free. Kind of clean.
“So, what’s the deal,” Cynthia says when I get back to the bedroom.
She is pointing to my nearly empty closet.
“I’m paring down,” I say.
“Paring down?” she says. “More like moving out.”
I look at her. She looks at me.
“I’m not moving out,” I say. “But I can’t quit work. I can’t stop being a father. I can’t disown my parents or move us to Bali or buy us a sailboat to go around the world. But this I can do. I can get rid of all this shit that no one is asking me to keep and that I don’t need.”
Cynthia sighs. “Well, I guess I might as well join you.”
By the end of the weekend we have chucked every dusty cassette tape and broken knickknack, every useless memento and obscure kitchen utensil. We have gotten rid of the cracked dining table and sold the chairs to the downstairs neighbors.
Jakes stuffs toys he has outgrown in a heavy duty garbage bag with eerie calm. We shed tears for a moment after hitting delete on all our wedding photos. We photograph everything we own and put it up for sale on the Internet at cut-rate prices. Then we add the computer, too.
“With this money, and our savings, we might be able to take some time of work,” Cynthia says.
“Who needs the Internet?” I say. “Who needs cable?”
“Who needs telephones?” Cynthia asks. “Who needs towels?”
“In the majority of countries,” I offer, “People use water for toilet paper.”
Cynthia cringes, then nods approval. “Some things will take getting used to.”
Hey Blake, a message in my inbox reads. We’re doing an overall assessment of the year and decided you are just the person to head it. Come by my office in an hour. Len Armbruster, CFO.
“I’m in,” I write back, and then delete the message.
“Blake, dude. What’s going on?”
Chuck Harlittle stands by my desk munching on a rice cake.
“Too much,” I say.
“You missed another call this morning with Hong Kong. These people stay up late to talk to us.”
“You didn’t respond to my third email about pulling back on direct mailings.” He points a half-moon rice-patty at me. “You’re slipping, Blake. I mean, enough with that awful tie already.”
“Brown is really in right now,” I say.
“What is it?” Chuck asks. “Divorce? Gambling? Alchohol?”
“Actually, I feel better than ever.”
He shakes his head back and forth. “Zen. You’re going Zen.”
I turn my hands palm up and say: “Om.”
Walking into our apartment is a shock. There are no tables or sofas. The living room rug is gone. The ficus we had in the bay window is a memory.
Cynthia comes running in and hugs me from behind.
“People are buying,” she says, and then waves a handful of bills in front of me.
“All this tonight?” I ask.
She smiles. “I called in sick. I couldn’t go in. I was just too excited.”
That night, we use whatever we have in the fridge to cook dinner, which consists of beans and rice and limp lettuce.
“We can eat microwave dinners,” Cynthia says. “But then we have to keep the microwave.”
“Fresh vegetables and fruit,” I say. “No packaging.”
“Let’s live like astronauts,” Jake says. “They have those awesome Styrofoam meals.”
“Their bodies also atrophy,” I say.
“That’s only because of the lack of gravity,” Cynthia says. “They’re not using their muscles and so the muscles stop working.”
We ponder this for a moment, and then decide to keep the microwave.
The next Friday, which is the last day of work before a week-long vacation, I am to give the presentation with CFO Len about the future of the company. I have prepared nothing. I come to the meeting with nothing but a paper cup of water and a pen. I have no handout, no powerpoint presentation, no inspiring image or motto to display behind me while I speak.
As the meeting starts I am shepherded to a seat at the front next to Len. He leans in to speak with me and I get a whiff of fruitiness.
“You smell good,” I say.
“Essential oils,” he says. “Gift from my wife. I swear by the stuff now. A little here”—he pats his neck—“and here”—he puts a finger to each wrist—“and your sense stay alert the whole day.”
Len, his fruity waft surrounding him, begins with an opening preamble about the organization. It involves comments about expansion into new markets and better follow-up with clients. Then, he turns to me for elaboration.
But I, of course, have nothing to say. So I do what a sailor might do when stranded on the high seas: I bluff. I ramble.
“What does a person who lacks for nothing need?” I ask at one point.
“The path to success does not have tollbooths,” I say at another.
Some people crane their heads toward me; others squint their eyes. I ask questions with no answers. I give answers to questions not asked. I talk and talk without saying anything, and finally, I feel Len’s large foot come down hard on my toes, getting them good right through the black leather and my new, plush golden toes.
“Any questions?” I offer by way of conclusion.
One woman looks down the table at me. “Do you have a handout or anything?”
The next few days are bliss. Cynthia goes into work late and leaves early. We take our few remaining possessions to the dump. We sleep on the floor and read trashy romance novels people put out on the curb and put them right back when we’re done. We ponder the fact that the nature of diminishing returns states that the more you put into something, the less you eventually get out. We eat off the same plate. We don’t plan anything, and think we may have found the answer to our time in the doldrums.
That is, until Jake starts showing signs of boredom.
“So, like, what now?” he says on Saturday from his perch on the windowsill.
I am filing my nails. Cynthia is doing yoga in her underwear. There are no clocks ticking, because we have gotten rid of all the clocks.
“Let’s go for a walk,” I say.
Out in the city we wander like newborn children. Everything feels fresh and interesting.
We walk through a shiny supermarket and don’t buy anything. We rub a giant Buddha’s belly outside a Japanese restaurant. We sit on park benches. We go into an antique shop, and Cynthia stops in front of a blue tea cup. Jake and I browse, but she does not move.
“What is it?” I ask.
“It’s,” she says, “it’s nice.”
The cup is no more than three inches tall and two wide. It is painted clear blue on the outside and jet black on the inside. A light gloss makes it shine in the light of the shop.
“I know this sounds strange,” she says, “but I want this.”
We stand in silence for a long time.
“Ok,” I finally say, “let’s get it.”
Back home, we are tired from our walking and mull about the empty apartment quietly. Jake does his homework on the floor and Cynthia and I trade a newspaper back and forth under our one lamp. When it’s time for bed, Jake asks if he can buy a plate next weekend. He wants to find one with pink flamingos on it.
“We’ll see,” I say. “There’s no hurry.”
I go into our bedroom and find Cynthia lying naked on the floor. I lay beside her. We kiss for a long time, and then start making love. The floor is hard on my knees and likely harder on her ass. But the more it hurts, we agree through intakes of breath, the better it feels.
When we’re finished, we lay out our single blanket and put sweaters under our heads for pillows. We feel the light breeze through the window. We breathe in and out through our noses. We clench and unclench each muscle from our jaws to our calves. We look at the cup sitting in the center of the floor, made larger, and more beautiful, by the emptiness around it.
© Alex Ortolani, 2012
Alex Ortolani has published short stories in literary magazines including Spectrum, Dislocate, and Word Riot. He has an M.A. in Creative Writing from Boston University and was a Fulbright Scholar in creative writing in South Africa.
The Horse Latitudes was read by David Harrell on 6th June 2012.