Agents of their Own Purposes

beth hoeckel

There was a complacent sense of agency in doing the dishes by hand. One had only to turn the tap to a reasonable temperature, reach for the soap and a sponge and exist in the moment. Doing the dishes, much like doing the ironing, allowed one to see (unlike so many things in life) the fruits of one’s labor in stacks on cupboard shelves and the unfolding of wrinkles in cloth. There was none of the moral ambiguity of moral agency—just the acting and the doing and the result. She often thought one could get lost in the power of simple action. Did this make her master of her domain? She wiped the last cup dry and let her mind drift from the dishes and their cleanliness. They now sat in pretty sparkling rows, awaiting to be agents of their own purposes.


“You know the book I lent you?” She eyed him over a sprinkled butterscotch donut.


“Yeah?” It sounded more like a question than an answer. He looked at his own donut—an apple fritter. She remembered him saying once he never minded spending 40 cents extra for better quality every time. She thought about a lifetime of 40 cents extra on every donut as she took a bite into her cheap, run of the mill fried sugar bagel.   She imagined it tasted 40 cents sweeter.


“Did you ever read it? I would like it back.” She shifted in the plastic booth and a harsh man-made noise emanated. It made her feel uncomfortable. She preferred furniture that didn’t moan its presence in a difficult moment.


He had been holding onto the book for weeks now. She felt it was a hostage. Something of hers he couldn’t let go. It made her feel stifled to think about such a tight grip.


“I haven’t finished it yet…” He might as well have been talking to his apple fritter. He moved and the plastic bench protested.


She knew he kept the book as a reason to see her. One last lifeline if she stopped responding to his texts, stopped answering his calls, when all his patterns were engraved like grooves on a record and she now knew how and when to stop the needle. She didn’t like it. She didn’t like someone holding onto to something she loved so much as means to get to her.


“Is it my fault you haven’t finished it?” She finally made eye-contact. “I don’t mean to sound impatient, or unsympathetic to how busy you’ve been. But I lent it to you ages ago, and if you aren’t going to finish it, well, I would like it back…” She felt she ended that lamely.


He held her gaze. “You care about that damn book more than you ever cared about me. I should just destroy it.” She imagined a record spinning. She felt like a different person and here he was playing on repeat. A song she knew well, but couldn’t stand anymore. The same words, but a different meaning.


“Keep it,” she said as she got up. The bench gave its two cents. She was rattling in change.


“I’m sorry. I’ll give it back. Just take a seat,” sounded the broken record.


How many times had she heard the words “I’m sorry?” How many seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months was the record skipping before she noticed. She wondered until she got home.


She relented to the power of simple action. She reached to dirty a cup.


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