We meet on Wednesdays. On the first Wednesday of the month we meet at one of our homes to discuss our achievements and share our profound and original thoughts. We have done everything from creating mathematical formulas to inventing technologies that will save your lives. We are architects, artists, physicists, and scientists. We are authors, composers, philosophers, and chemists. We are religious men and atheists. We are married, divorced, single, and straight. We know of a gay genius, but he does not attend the meetings. There are no women in our group. We are not saying there are no lady geniuses, but we sure don’t know any.
We do not expect you to understand. We always knew we were different. For a minute Frederick thought he was the same, but he wasn’t. When he was two, little Frederick sat down at the piano and composed his first sonata, the first to include a solo for the Jew’s harp. He thought, Oh, how nice it will be to play this for my little friends! Then his mom came in and seemed surprised, which in turn surprised Frederick. When Marcus was four he discovered a hitherto unknown genus of insect while his brother was shooting spitballs. When Clifford was six he created a theory of abstraction just the title of which is ten pages long so we won’t bother. Our dear friend William had both cross-bred a fig and discovered a dinosaur before the age of seven. These are just a few of the sorts of stories we share when we meet.
We meet to congratulate ourselves but we also meet to purge ourselves. We meet to share things we cannot share with you. Smart things but also customs. Like the metaphorical value of sleeping in a nightcap to keep the genius in. Or the fact that many of us hold onto what we collectively refer to as our “lucky things” (ranging from typical things like shirts or socks we had on when we won awards, to typewriters that don’t work, to small locks of hair purportedly from the heads of geniuses that went before us), though not one of us believes luck has anything to do with it. Or the value of saving entire volumes of academic journals, every article ever read that pertains remotely to our work, nay, every scrap of paper we ever touched, just in case, even if it means we must delicately move around the towers of paper in our homes and offices. Or the need for exactitude and precision, the importance of a regimen, and the malignment and misunderstanding of anal-retentiveness in contemporary society. We are aware that there are those of the mind that our disciplined ways of life are harsh, that our strict routines have consequences both mental and physical; to this we say, maybe so, but you sure seem to like that electricity we got you. We meet to have a safe place to use words like ateleology and apotheosis without confusing or embarrassing anyone, and away from your judgments of pretension. We meet to smoke pipes filled with tobacco we brought back from foreign lands and drink one brandy or liqueur that lasts us the evening. We meet to talk about that time the philosopher Eldred smoked marijuana, and to thank him for sparing us that horror. We meet to talk about one painting by Schiele or one article on Hindemith for two hours. We meet to discuss papers that do not get published and tenures that get passed over. (These things don’t happen often, but when they do, the despair is often paralyzing.) We meet to talk about theories that don’t pan out (or are disproven! the worst!) and novels that remain imperfect and therefore remain unseen and possibly published after our deaths (edited so thoroughly wrongheadedly as to diminish our genius when redemption is no longer possible) and discoveries made by those not among us, and the years lost on these projects. We meet to talk about how hard it is to be a genius. We discuss the difficulties of never being wrong, and the loneliness of being the smartest person in the room. We talk about the ones who died too soon, of the great works of art or science not to be. We grieve for Hubert, who took his life at the mere age of thirty-four while composing an opera that was sure to become a masterwork (a devastating loss to Frederick in particular, as Hubert had become a mentor of sorts). We weep for the great doctor Thirlby, who leapt to his death in the throes of a manic episode before finishing that remedy for autism. We talk about our personal lives, the lone area in which we do not always excel. We often suffer from depression and even mental illness. We make poor choices. We marry only the most beautiful women, models, and movie stars. One of us has married both a Miss America and a Miss Universe. Some of them are quite bright, some less so. There is nary a genius among them. That is not what we want. We geniuses love a gorgeous woman with a problem.
Take Winston the rocket scientist. Recently Winston came to the group with a broken heart. His wife Amaravati, a Bollywood star, left him for one of her co-stars. I should have known, Winston told us. I know everything else. We all nodded, knowingly. We asked if there were any signs. Well, he said, perhaps when she told me that she could not promise to be faithful, I should have listened. Otherwise I can’t think of anything. We nodded again. How could you know? we told him.
Or take the time Eldred, who has suffered from often crippling depression since graduating college at age ten, came to ask the group whether or not it might be time for him to go off his medication. He posed to us the idea that since he had been doing quite well for several years on his lithium that there seemed to be no reason to stay on it. The group had some differing opinions on this. Some of us fully agreed that this was a reasonable argument. Others were less sure, suggesting that a medical doctor would know best. Eldred ultimately made the decision to go off his meds with results that may have involved imaginary kittens with police badges providing dangerous directives, but we are happy to say he is now back on his meds and doing much better, although his choices in women still fit our general profile. His most recent fiancée was a woman he met in the psych ward. Theirs was a passionate but stormy affair, although they actually lasted longer than most of his relationships.
And the renowned architect Phillip has been living with his partner, the violet-eyed supermodel Elsabetta, for three years, trying unsuccessfully to cure her of her sexual abuse issues. It has been his belief that his sexual prowess and willingness to try anything to please would relieve her of these issues, but he has so far not met with success and cannot figure out why. We stared at him blankly. We have nothing, we told him.
Or take Geoffrey, the child of two academics, whose story resembles many a genius we have known. The pressure for young Geoffrey to achieve was immense, beginning as soon as he could hold up his head on his own. Although he was only two months old, it was at this time that Geoffrey’s parents taught him sign language and began labeling the entire household inventory with large flash cards so that Geoffrey would learn to read before his first birthday. Passing that milestone at ten months, his parents began to read aloud to him from Tolstoy, Dickens, and Hemingway. Geoffrey was subsequently enrolled in everything from fencing to ballet class to tennis lessons. Tutors were brought in to teach him biophysics, dead languages, and medieval history. He learned to play the harp like a seraph. For fun, they would do the crossword or play chess. Geoffrey never saw a checker until he was thirty-one years old. He grew up to teach macroeconomics at Yale, but his secret shame never left him, and it was one nearly all of us shared. Geoffrey, in grade school, had once gotten a B. In penmanship.
Geoffrey hung his head when he told us this, but we had all been there. In fact, on this night, we took turns sharing our poor grades and the humiliation and fear that brought upon us. We recalled the harsh talk of permanent records and less than perfect G.P.A.s* from our parents and principals and deans, and our long, carefully considered pleas to our professors to reconsider for the sake of our futures. We were aware that there were many who considered a B plus to be a respectable grade, but this merely widened the gap between ourselves and everyone else. How could we live with a partner who believed such a thing? How would we raise our children? Would we go the other way and try to love them simply for who they were, as we had longed for at tender ages, as we often long for now? Or would we do as our parents did, pushing them toward the heights, at risk that our condition will again be handed down? Sandor the botanist pointed out that in the real world, no one mentions these things, that when the prizes are handed out, our A minuses and B pluses have long been forgotten by anyone but ourselves. And yet these are the things that shape us and haunt us.
The story of William is perhaps less typical, but ultimately most illustrative of our common plight. William was the only child born to a family of Nebraska fig farmers. His father was a stoic man, not given to open displays of affection, but dedicated to creating the perfect, juicy fig. His mother, who had hoped for a large family, five or six siblings for William at least, would suffer three miscarriages before sickly William was born. Worse, though, was the loss of their firstborn, Alma, who died of unknown causes in the night, just before her second birthday. William would never know this sister, only that he wasn’t her.
William discovered his particular genius as a small boy. Like many boys, he was interested in dinosaurs and could name all of the classes, subclasses, and infraclasses by the time he was four. By age five, having exhausted the meager selection of literature on the subject at the local library, he begged his parents to buy him a book he’d seen in the card catalog that wasn’t on the shelves. His father dismissed this pursuit of dead things as irrelevant, but told him if he worked on the fig farm he could save up his money and buy whatever books he cared to. William eagerly accepted this challenge and unintentionally smote his father by cross-breeding what turned out to be the perfect fig (more sweet, plump, and moist than any before it, and readily identifiable by a tiny fragrant bloom on the bottom end), for which he was silently scorned. Nevertheless he bought himself a shelf of dinosaur books and by age six, theorized that there was a dinosaur that had yet been discovered. By age seven he’d appeared on Merv Griffin, David Susskind, and 60 Minutes, and by age nine, these dinosaur bones were unearthed in Peru, at which time William honored by The Field Museum. His father made him work on the farm until he was fifteen.
He didn’t have time to be awkward in high school, since he emancipated himself and graduated the year he turned fifteen, but he more than made up for that at college. One time, William drank three light beers and became wildly intoxicated (we relish these tales of debauchery as we cannot afford to be heavy drinkers; as much as we might like to cease our brain activity for an occasional evening, we cannot risk the long-term damage), informing us that he almost threw up and slept in until nine the following morning, earning him the nickname William the Lightweight for the duration of his time at University. Subsequent to this, William dated a number of emotionally withholding women, which he found to be an exhilarating challenge. After discovering yet another unknown dinosaur the summer after his sophomore year, he met his first wife at a sorority mixer. William was of course not in a fraternity, nevertheless his roommate, who had taken pity on him, invited him to this party, where he met Coreen, who, quite drunk on wine spritzers, thought William was funny and agreed to marry him. William, later noticing that she preferred wine spritzers to his company, divorced her shortly thereafter. This, however, did not deter him from marrying two more alcoholics, a professional cheerleader, and an especially stunning barista. He simply cannot stop getting married. William has been with his current wife, Marla (dean of a small arts college), for nearly five years (his longest by four and a half, and considerably longer than most of the rest of us, with the exception of Frederick, whose thirty-year marriage to Louisa, a renowned sommelier, is an extremely rare example of endurance, one we all admire and fear with equal fervor), and the problem seems to be, as far as we can tell, that she’s basically normal, and smart, and wants to talk and work on their problems. William and Marla have one child, a four-year-old girl, and William would like to have another, but the couple’s constant disagreements about parenting are a major concern. Marla wants to send their daughter to a Montessori school.
Whoa, said Clifford. That is so not cool. We all nodded at the great truth of this.
Also, she’s very into this idea of “play” for children, said William. Confused looks rippled around the room like the wave at a football stadium. Marla doesn’t think Zooey should have extracurricular activities until she’s at least six and/or only if she expresses the original interest herself.
Well what does she do all day? asked Marcus.
Exactly, said William. I don’t know. She just plays.
Oh man, said Geoffrey.
Plus Marla thinks it’s fine for her to pick out her own clothes now.
Oh, that is no good, said Winston.
Really? said William. See, I just don’t know sometimes. Do you know what I wore every single day until I was fifteen?
We did know, but William told us again anyway.
Overalls. Overalls and a red-checked shirt. Like a character from Hee-Haw. I wore that outfit on 60 Minutes, even.
Hearing this again didn’t lessen the impact. We did feel his pain.
I mean, so my kid wears polka dots and stripes once in a while, at least she’s expressing herself.
Mmm, I don’t know about that, said Clifford.
Yeah, that’s iffy, said Philip.
OK, but why? William asked.
It just is, Philip said. Everyone nodded, but no one had a better answer.
I don’t think you can let this continue, Geoffrey said. Manipulate her was his idea.
Yes! Marcus said. Also, tell her one thing but do another.
Mess with her mind, Philip said. Tell her she’s brilliant on Monday, and on Tuesday tell her she’s obtuse.
Ooh, good one, Clifford said. I’d also advise backhanded compliments.
Control her, Winston said. Do not let her dress or feed the child. Or go to work. Or see her friends. We couldn’t argue with that. Well, Clifford tried to suggest it might be all right for her to have friends, but the rest of us shot it down. Where do you think they get these crazy polka-dot ideas? Winston added.
William reminded the group that we were geniuses, not misogynists.
No, some said. We’re both.
This got us sidetracked for a while.
Dump her ass, Eldred said. She sounds like dullsville. We all vocally agreed. William told us that Marla suggested marriage counseling, and that he was really considering it.
Hmm, we all said. Not what we’d have done.
Let’s take a vote! Phillip said. Raise your hand if you think William should break it off. The vote was, of course, unanimous. William left the group disheartened but determined to break it off until he arrived home to Marla, who had baked him a pear tart and presented it to him wearing only an apron. Seeing his lovely bride holding the tart, William’s heart softened, and he immediately agreed to go to counseling.
At the next meeting, William reported of his success in marriage counseling. He tried to explain about the tart and the apron. We understood the temptation. We have seen Marla. He told us of insights and revelations he experienced in their counseling sessions. That Marla actually had things to teach him. That compensation for his childhood feelings of inadequacy with a series of beautiful women had left him unfulfilled. He explained that when people do not have conflict in a relationship, it is considered a success. He used terms we were familiar with, but which baffled us in this context. He spoke of open-mindedness, communication, trust, and honesty. He spoke of serenity and spiritual awakenings. We mostly stared at him blankly as he made these reports. Sensing his imminent departure from the group, we snapped out of it and tried some last-ditch efforts to persuade him to end things with Marla. We suspected rightly that he was sharing our secrets. She’s going to get old, we told him. And ugly, we said. Hideously ugly. Also fat. Very fat. They all get fat, eventually. Bald, probably even. Oh, definitely bald. We knew we were grasping at straws, that William was already gone. We were wildly jealous, but we kept that to ourselves.
We still take in new members every so many years, when we hear of a new genius. Now and again at the meetings William’s name will come up. Wonder how that William is doing. We know, of course, that he’s still married to Marla and that they have another toddler who is apparently only in preschool. Imagine how fat Marla must be now, we say. So fat. And bald. We have seen photos of Marla, who has to be near thirty-four by now, and she is neither fat nor bald. We speculate that his genius has diminished, but we know it is untrue. What no one wants to say is that we envy him. We secretly imagine our lives with one perfect woman who will take us away from ourselves, spirit us away on clouds and whales and the shoulders of giants, who will show us things we have never seen, and who we will stay with forever.
We meet to discuss whether or not to donate sperm. On this we are divided, even in our individual minds. Some of us believe the world could use a few more geniuses; others do not want to see more suffer as we do. We talk about how thinking physically hurts sometimes. How we wish we were dumb. How we look at the blissfully dumb people and we imagine what that’s like, you who never think of killing yourselves just to have one quiet moment. We pity you, but we envy you. We think we are better than you and worse than you. We wish you could understand. Be grateful that you can’t.
* 5.0 GPAs became popular after our time, for which some of us give thanks to god.
Elizabeth Crane is the author of three collections of short stories, When the Messenger is Hot, All This Heavenly Glory, and You Must Be This Happy to Enter. Her work has also been featured in numerous publications, anthologies and on NPR’s Selected Shorts. She is a recipient of the Chicago Public Library 21st Century Award. Her work has been adapted for the stage by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater company and has also been adapted for film. She currently teaches at UCR Palm Desert’s Low Residency MFA program.
Dangerous Laughter: Thirteen Stories by Steven Millhauser.
I’d heard “The Dome” on the NPR’s Selected Shorts, which floored me, and I couldn’t believe he’d written so many books and I hadn’t read any of them. Millhauser has a way of creating weird little universes that are completely original, completely his, and thoroughly real—no matter how unreal.