LARB Lit: Choose
By Michelle ChiharaMay 20, 2017
CHOOSE FROM 47 ENDINGS!!
Choose Your Own Adventure is a trademarked copyright of Halt MacFillian Youth.
© PowersThatBe 1974
Halt MacFillian: London, Bainbridge.
“These books are like games. Sometimes the choice seems like a good one that will solve all your problems, but you wonder, is this a trap?!”
Matt Harmon, Age 11
“I think you’d call this a book for active readers, and I am definitely an active reader!!”
Mackenzie Lawton, Age 10
“Civic democracy requires people who know how to choose among complex options. These books foster important skills in young people.”
Lawrence Cohen, Educational Testing Services
Beware and warning!! This book is different from other books. You and YOU ALONE are in charge of how events unfold in this story.
There are dangers, choices, and consequences. YOU must use all of your numerous talents and much of YOUR enormous intelligence. The wrong decision could end in despair, severe emotional paralysis, or even DEATH.
You are a pre-adolescent girl. The era when you dreamed of pony-ranching and wrote a novel about a girl and her pony has just come to an end. You stand before a show ribbon — The E for Effort Prize — pinned to a corkboard on your wall. You think of your evil pony, Chester, who bucked you off three times. Three times you got back on that horse. You finger the dusty ribbon. Tomorrow, you will face the furies of junior high school.
You open the gate to the courtyard. Young girls and boys stand around in groups. The jungle gym stands empty above its woodchips. The tire swing, on its three chains, rotates. A voice gently speaks: “Some of the girls on the playground are good, and some are evil. Some wear lip gloss, some do not. Which group will you choose to hang out with?”
A girl wearing red Guess jeans with a zipper at the ankles moves her lips at you. She wears lip gloss. She looks as if she is saying the word PEACH.
If you think the girls with lip gloss are the GOOD ones, turn to page 11.
If you think the girls with the lip gloss are the EVIL ones, turn to page 32.
The be-glossed girl in red jeans beckons you with her finger, across the expanse of asphalt. She motions toward the girls’ bathroom. Her fingernails are painted black. It all seems very eerie, especially because you have decided that she is EVIL. You don’t choose her. Instead, you approach the natural-lipped girls.
These girls, without lip gloss, stand by the tether ball in plain jeans and sensible colors. Their lips are bone dry. They shift their weight and smile. A blonde leans in. She says, “So, like, did you mean to wear culottes to school?” The rest of them giggle.
It turns out you were wrong! In this world, blonde girls who DON’T wear lip gloss are, in fact, EVIL. They pretend to be your friends for two months before stealing your Maxi pads. You stain your culottes, which you continue to wear, because you like them, dammit. The natural-lipped girls steal other things from you — money, books, English papers. Finally, after P.E. one day, you open your locker to find a decapitated Cabbage Patch doll smeared with ketchup. You scream, “Why are you so mean?!”
The blonde saunters over and picks up the gory doll. She runs her finger over the ketchup, sticks it in her mouth, sucks.
“It’s the lip gloss,” she says. “Only sluts wear lip gloss. But it turns out, the gloss carries an antidote. For the poison. Prussian Blue. They slip it into our strawberry milk and it makes us CRAZY…”
As she says this, she stabs you with a shiv, made from the lip of a curling iron. As your blood spills out onto the industrial tile, you think back to the goth girl in red jeans and wish you had followed her. Your life has been short and sweet. Farewell brave one!
You choose to walk over to the girl with the red jeans and lip gloss. You ask her, did you just say “PEACH”?
“Leech?!” she says cheerfully. “No. I was just trying to tell you to avoid the milk in the cafeteria at all costs.”
“Cool,” you say. “So, do I have to wear lip gloss to hang out with you?”
“No, you don’t have to do anything. But I have some pretty great glitter gloss!! Wanna go get pizza?”
It turns out her name is Milly. She likes art. She will be your best friend from now until college. You follow her to pizza gladly.
If you decide to follow Milly to all of her art classes, turn to page 12.
If you decide that school is not a space of radical possibility but a space of competition among curricular identities preparing for the job market, where Art Girl and Smart Girl are mutually exclusive, then leave art to Milly. Enroll exclusively in honors science and math, and turn to page 13.
If you decide that you want to be a writer, turn to page 111.
Math and science classes, it turns out, are diverting, engaging, and full of cool people!! In your senior year, you win the Very Best At Science Prize, and a trip to Denmark.
There, you meet a dashing young Dane named Torben. His mother grew up among Moroccan intellectuals, but his father is a powerful Danish politician, and he is studying economics. You fall instantly in love just before you fly home to America, where you immediately begin a long, chaste written correspondence about the dismal science. This lasts until you are 24.
Torben is suddenly able to work in the United States while you complete your graduate work!!
As you climb into a taxi to go meet the Dane, a voice emanates:
“Someday, after you marry Torben and move to Denmark for a position at the University, you will win the Nobel in Chemistry for discovering an antidote to Prussian Blue poison!!”
A vision of an American Airlines in-flight magazine cover story appears to float before the fiberglass separator in the cab. You and Torben, the It-couple of Copenhagen!! The Nobel Prize in Science, American Airlines, and Danish socialism appear to you, in this moment, as pillars of the earth, eternal and blessed.
You smile with inner peace. You tell the driver, “LAX please!”
In sculpture class with Milly, you create what is called an art installation. You hang tiny mirrors in the shape of hourglasses in the corner of the school auditorium. You write that your art is about memory and time. Your art teacher tells you that it is a nice concept, but that teenagers shouldn’t make art about memory and time. You hate her.
You develop a raging crush on your creative writing teacher.
He invites you to see an opera with him.
If you decide to go to the opera, turn to page 17.
If you decide to drop out of creative writing and go back to math and science, turn to page 13.
If you don’t know what to do, turn to page 111.
The opera is beautiful. Gently padded people sing with great intensity about love, death and Mephistopheles. A broad-shouldered woman with elaborately braided hair appears in a boat. You can’t quite follow the plot, but the music vibrates at the base of your spine. You look up at the gold-leaf on the ceiling, and you feel, for the first time in your life, that you are a grown-up. In the space between the barrel vaults, your life takes the shape that you want it to take. You are out on a romantic date. You are wearing perfume. The music soars.
Your teacher puts his hand over yours, on the arm rest of the chair. He has thick blond-red hair on his arm, a man’s hair, beginning at the wrist.
You feel suddenly sick to your stomach. You push your teacher’s hand away, your heart beating. A bitter taste rises on your tongue that feels like your body rebelling against itself. You run out of the opera house. One of your high heels breaks off. Limping and without a jacket, you get to the subway station. You realize that you have forgotten your wallet. In proper SAT form, you calculate that if you move at a constant pace, it will take you seven point eight hours to walk home. You are wearing an outfit that cost one half of one quarter of one opera ticket. Your dress has zero pockets. Zero pockets, zero change, zero phone calls. You close your eyes. You can feel the aria’s melody slipping away. You stand shivering by the ticket kiosk.
A strange man touches your arm. You startle.
“Are you alright? Didn’t I see you in the opera?” he asks. “Can I help you?” His soft green sweater looks welcoming, but you can see his eyes slip down to your breasts.
If you ask this man for three dollars to pay for your fare home, while agreeing, in exchange, to give him your phone number, turn to page 29.
If you turn and go back inside the opera house, turn to page 38.
You go back inside, and as the second act lets out, you stand on the grand mezzanine scanning the crowds. Amazingly, you spot the parents of one of your friends.
“Hi, Mrs. Cohen!” Your voice sounds unnaturally high.
You concoct a lie about being a volunteer usher. Mrs. Cohen pulls off her glasses and squints at you. She is holding a nubbly sweater and has both freckles and wrinkles. She does not seem to believe that you were a volunteer usher. She looks at you as if you have something weird on your face. Nonetheless, she agrees to drive you home. On your way out, you see your creative writing teacher standing alone by the snacks table, holding a shrink-wrapped brownie. He looks sheepish and alone.
The next week you go out on prom night with a group of friends. They do not want to go to prom, but they want to go out. You sit in the back seat of your friend’s Cabriolet convertible, smashed up against a boy named Max.
You actually want to go to prom. You want to see the Under the Sea–themed decorations, and you like dancing to Tina Turner. Max thinks prom is stupid, though, so you say nothing. Your whole thigh is pressed against his whole thigh. Every time the turn signal flips, the squeak of it says, “wheeskWHO, wheeskWHO.” You find this extraordinarily funny. Eventually, you snort. You look at Max. The planes of his face carve canyons of shadows, until you pass under a streetlight. Then, in the muscles of his jaw, you see the twitch of a smile.
Everyone piles out at a ’50s-themed diner. You order fries and you face away from Max for the rest of the whole entire night.
At school, the next week, when he sees you, he stares, takes one step toward you, opens his mouth as if about to say, “Peach…” But then he turns and walks away.
If you decide not to have sex with Max until you have had a serious conversation with your mother about condoms and respect in relationships, turn to page 9.
If you show up at Max’s house, after dark, one Friday when you hear his parents will be away, turn to page 128.
If you decide that you will instead experiment with lesbianism, turn to page 111
Max kisses you in the middle of a David Bowie video on MTV. He is very serious. When he leans in to you, his T-shirt smells of laundry detergent, and you wonder where his parents have gone and if his mother washes his T-shirts for him. His tongue flicks into your mouth and surprises you, but a good surprise, like an unexpected guest. After the kiss, he leans back and looks at you. You feel sure you have done it wrong. He tells you he likes your bangs. You reach your hand forward and place your palm on his forearm, to feel the hairs there. Only then does your hand telegraph the retort of something electric kicking in, something electric you have never felt before, something that you understand, in a flash, is what the fuss is all about. This is it, the language of skin speaking to other skin. Then Max says:
“Hey, what’s up between you and mister creative writing?”
A rushing blackness closes in at the edge of your vision just as BAM! Max’s spine goes rigid and his eyes roll back into his head.
A trickle of blood runs from the corner of his mouth.
Max has been hit with an alien sting ray! Small green men wearing space costumes erupt from behind the Balinese sideboard!! They look shrunken and vicious behind warped transparent plastic masks. But you don’t have time to wonder who or why. They carry strange guns. A smell of sulfur rises in your nostrils just as: You and your companion are vaporized!!
You sit down in front of your mother at the kitchen table and ask for a serious conversation about relationships. When the subject of physical bodies belonging to boys edges into view, she says, “Don’t tell me DON’T TELL ME.” Then she walks away. In her absence, the room smells vaguely of sulfur.
At school, in the snack room, Max is microwaving a Hot Pocket. You plant both feet on the black industrial rubber mats. You take a deep breath. You ask if he maybe might want to maybe go out to dinner maybe or the opera or maybe hamburgers with you. He opens the microwave and sighs. He is an anarchist. He tells you dinner is a “stupid bourgeois idea.”
After creative writing class, your teacher asks you to come to his office to go over your story. When you are alone, you ask whether he thinks going out to dinner is stupid and bourgeois. He grins and says that depends on the restaurant. Then he says that any man would be lucky to take you out to dinner. He tells you that you have expressive body language. He tells you that he noticed you tucked your leg under you, in your wooden student desk. He tells you that beneath your skirt, the underwear you are wearing is purple with white flowers. He is correct.
Later, he sits down next to you at the top of the upper quad staircase. From there, you can still hear the snack room microwave whirring. In the distance, the Advanced Classical Music Ensemble is practicing Verdi. Your teacher fingers a paper cup. It’s just coffee, he tells you, but whenever he drinks coffee, it makes him want to eat something sweet, like a brownie.
“Makes my caffeine habit that much worse for me.” He smiles.
You try to think of what to say. You left this man, your teacher, standing alone at the opera, and he seems to have the grace not to mention it.
If you agree to take a long hike up the Strawberry Canyon fire road with mister creative writing, turn to page 194.
If you decide to follow your cousin to a Zen retreat at the Buddhist convent, turn to page 3.
At the Zen Center for Meditation and Openness, you sit down to a vegan lunch of locally grown kale and heirloom cabbage beet stew. The guy next to you looks about your age. His name is Max. It turns out he goes to your high school. He tells you that although he finds the novel hopelessly imbricated with bourgeois values, he has signed up for Creative Writing next semester, and you should take it with him.
If you take Creative Writing with Max, turn to page 9.
If you decide to stay forever at the Zen Center, turn to page 14.
Suddenly, as the smell of sulfur rises in your nostrils, you remember: You are allergic to heirloom cabbage beets!! Anaphylactic shock and DEATH ensues.
The fire trail climbs up the hill behind the Greek Theater and turns off into scrub and eucalyptus with a view of the city spread out before the bay. You can smell your teacher’s sweat, which smells, for lack of a better word, grown-up. A man’s smell. You know this smell primarily, or only, from your father. You try very hard not to think about this.
When your teacher puts his hand on your arm, you can feel yourself frowning and trying not to frown. Your body goes numb. You think about running, like you did at the opera, but there is nowhere to run, along this narrow canyon road, and you feel that you have promised certain things by coming here. You consider throwing yourself down the steep drop at the edge of the path. You remind yourself that kissing someone is no big deal, it’s barely even hooking up, it’s just lips on lips, you can turn yourself off inside, it means nothing.
If you disassociate and follow through with the kiss, turn to page 198.
If you don’t know what to do, turn to page 111.
You suddenly find yourself in a chapel with high whitewashed walls. A few rows of wooden pews lead up to a dais with a marble statue of a wounded saint. Above the dais, in the white wall, is a plain wooden door.
You notice: There are no crosses, no images in the stained glass, nothing but a statue of a man with wings and an arrow lodged in his shoulder. Behind the statue, a door. A carved banner at the statue’s feet reads: “DEUS EX MACHINA, or, the Patron Saint of Cosmic Ironies and Intrusions.”
You walk up and stand in front of the door on the dais. Everything that has led you here drops away. You put your hand on the brass doorknob. The metal is cool to the touch.
“I wouldn’t open that, if I were you,” says the statue.
“No? Why not?” you ask.
“Because behind that door lies an empty room surrounded by wolves,” says the saint.
“I don’t understand,” you say. “I made different choices. Each time, I couldn’t find a path that didn’t lead me through a stupid affair with my perverted teacher. Choosing math and science just ended the story. There’s no other way forward. Where am I?”
The saint’s pale marble face smiles gently. “The room with wolves isn’t so bad. On some days, behind that door lies a dirt road laced with land mines. On other days, sand dunes. That is the nature of this page. Bad luck, just beyond. Hurt without explanation or cause. Pain that comes not to you, but to those you love.”
You back away from the door. In the distance, something howls.
“Can I back up? Can I find a different ending?”
“There are no endings here,” says the saint. “Endings give context, they provide closure.” He shrugs, and blood trickles from his shoulder. He opens his hands, palms up.
You close your eyes.
If you decide to try again to get it right, turn to page 1.
If you decide to skip forward to your early 20s, turn to page 197.
You and Max sit together in a coffee shop full of thrift shop furniture that does not match. The air conditioning is struggling against the long squares of sunlight that fall across you and make your thighs stick to the fake leather on the bench. You wonder if your lip gloss is too sparkly for daytime wear. You wonder at your own sudden, superficial anxiety in front of Max, even after all these years.
You have both ordered a dish that comes with toast, and for a moment, you discuss grill marks on bread. Grill marks are carcinogenic. Is it okay to want ersatz grill marks? It has been 15 years since you last saw Max, when he walked in a cap and gown with his sister and his parents, across your high school’s gravel parking lot. You are both now married to other people. More than anything, you want to know whether Max ever heard the rumors about you and your teacher. But you can’t bring yourself to ask.
“Do you remember that you told me going out to dinner was for petty bourgeois snobs?”
“It is,” he says.
You raise your eyebrows.
He crunches into grill-marked toast. It leaves a stripe of ash on his cheek. He looks out the window, swallows. “I should have taken you out anyway.”
If you decide to go back and try to find something else to say to Max, turn to page 17.
If you decide that it’s no use now, turn to page 498.
You are in your late 20s, at a fancy resort, on a trip mostly paid for by your boyfriend, an older Danish guy. You realized, in a flash on the way into the resort while you were looking at the water slide, that you no longer love him. You walk through the expansive hotel grounds, holding his hand.
You pass a wedding being held on a bluff, over the ocean. The voice of the officiating pastor booms out over a crackling sound system, the speakers hidden somewhere within the manicured lawns and plumeria bushes.
“Marriage,” says the pastor, “Marriage is like a successful deal in Mergers and Acquisitions. It takes preparation. It takes work.”
Every bone in your body wants to strip naked and run across the lawn. “Fuck Mergers & Acquisitions!” you want to shout. “You are everything that is wrong with our world!” Instead, you pass the five-star hotel restaurant, which you can not afford. They serve bone marrow and truffled foie gras with cranberry and something else. You and the Dane go to the beer garden. You sit at a picnic table. The Dane loves beer gardens. A waiter brings you a drastically overpriced Pale Ale in a plastic cup. In front of you, the Pacific Ocean is steely blue. Endless. Full of sonar-confused whales.
A voice emanates, gently, from the smoke near the grill. “What do you have to show for yourself?” it asks. “You have successfully avoided choosing friends who are Evil. You have worked hard in school, tried to find time to exercise. You have worn red jeans, unapologetically. Occasionally, you have chosen the organic and vegetarian option. And yet, here you sit, in a beer garden, feeling dissatisfied with a Dane. You are angry. You make very little money, and you resent what you can not afford.”
All you can do is nod and blink in the smoke. You wish aliens would vaporize you now.
You think about nice hotel rooms with ocean views and free chocolates, about bone marrow, about the necklace in the artists’ shop up the road that the Dane did not buy you. Bone marrow was once a poor person’s food. You fault yourself for both knowing and wanting these things.
The woman next to you in the beer garden, as if reading your mind, says that it costs 30 thousand dollars just to reserve the bluff where the wedding party is now visible. “That’s before you pay for anything else,” she scoffs. “Thirty K! Before food, drink, chairs.” You and your boyfriend both make disgusted sounds.
Secretly, you find his Danish noises annoying.
A small, tanned man across from you wears a button-down shirt embroidered with the words “Beer Camp.”
Suddenly, you HATE everyone: the woman next to you with her bitterness, yourself and your own class rage, your boyfriend — the people in the beer garden with their blatant striving and yearning, Americans with their vehement ignorance and stupid desires. You hate this resort, a beached luxury cruise liner stranded on a cliff of overmulched landscaping strangling the coast. You hate weddings. Beer Camp. Nachos themselves. You hate.
You hate our unwillingness to see that the system is rigged and that the people who manicure a golf course onto a bluff are the same people who cut down giant redwoods for their own weddings. The people who own the 12 million dollar second homes on Highway One with the views of the Pacific are the same people who drip-irrigate the California desert sage and call it conservation, the same people who own the beer garden and are fleecing you with it and what is it? — garden of beer, natural wonder where the cat piss grows? If marriage is Mergers and Acquisitions, then we should all ditch vulnerability and trust and double down on lies and a willingness to sell people off for their component parts. Mergers and Acquisitions are laughing at the rest of us. We go along trying to do right by this world, believing that good choices will hold and insulate us, that we too are soon-to-be-rich. We are none of us soon-to-be-rich. We work and scrape and don’t-steal and find that adjusted for inflation our real wages haven’t gone up in this godforsaken nation since 1971. Meanwhile, the already-rich are flagging cruise ships out of a tax haven in Liberia and confusing the whales and sucking down bone marrow with cranberries …
You open your mouth to say all this to the Dane. You suddenly want very badly for him to understand. He makes another Danish Noise.
“Thirty thousand dollars is perhaps too expensive,” he says. “But the ladies want a nice wedding, eh?!”
And then you hate him, too.
If you stand up on a picnic table to denounce the fever dream of late capitalist excess, turn to page 86.
If you decide to start over by starring in a reality television show called TEMPTATIONS: A LOVE CRUISE, turn to page 72.
If you don’t know what to do, turn to page 111.
You suddenly find yourself in a chapel with high, whitewashed walls. A few rows of simple pews lead up to a dais with a small wooden table. It looks as if something heavy, on a rectangular base, has been dragged through the dust and out a wooden door at the back. On the table lie two printed promotional offers to buy something called “Groupons.”
If you choose the “Groupon” for a luxury resort, turn to page 2029.
If you choose the “Groupon” for ZOOMZ! tooth-whitening treatments, turn to page 72.
You got a deal on a vacation at a fancy resort.
A wedding is taking place on the bluff at the edge of the gardens. Your five-year-old daughter, wearing a pirate costume, runs onto the lawn and crashes the bridal party photograph. The maid of honor makes a sour face.
As you drag your daughter away, you think about your own wedding, now five years past. Your mother tried to wear white to walk you down the aisle. Then she tried to sabotage your wedding dress. You look at your daughter and you cannot imagine a set of choices that she could make that would lead you to want to sabotage her wedding dress. At least, not today.
A voice gently speaks: “Regret always feels more perceptive than foresight, but this is itself a lie.”
You look at the nearest plumeria bush. You say out loud, “Hello? Who is that?”
On the bluff, you stand holding your infant and looking out at the Pacific. Your older daughter lets go of your hand and runs. For a moment, she drops out of sight on the path, down a switchback, and the wind brings you the faint smell of body odor. A man’s. You don’t recognize it. Suddenly, you are transported by terror. You are certain that this pungent man will steal your daughter, that there are predators in the bushes, that with or without a husband who does Mergers and Acquisitions, your daughter will not be safe, she can never be safe, you cannot protect her. You stand paralyzed. You do not know how to make choices based on this fear.
Panicking, you call out for your husband. Your voice dies in your throat. Your body is slow, molasses, holding the baby. You hear your stacked heels crunch on the gravel as if they belong to someone else and the thought you have is: “This is the last sound I will remember before finding out what happened to my daughter.” Your vision catches and begins to darken at the edges. And then there she is, her dark hair against the flash of the ocean. She is with your husband. Lower down on the path. He bounces your daughter up and down in his arms and says, “wheeskWHO wheeskWHO.” The body odor smell is gone. Maybe it was never there. A salt breeze rises from the ocean at dusk.
You decide to save these fears for later.
The bride from the wedding walks across the plush green lawn. You notice she wears no lip gloss.
You suggest that your family eat at the Beer Garden, since the restaurants are overpriced and your daughter won’t eat anything anyway. In the garden, long communal picnic tables hold impromptu groups of couples and families, all talking, all needing someone at the end to pass the salt, get a napkin, another beer, a straw. You are terrified of getting stuck in the middle of a bench among strangers. In equal measure, you long for it. You want to be the person stuck in the middle, held in place by the group, the one who can’t move but has easy access to the salt. A guy in a tank top plays something you believe is called bro-reggae. Late sun slants over the place where the manicured gardens give way to California sage.
Your daughter takes your hand and demands that you put down the baby. She drags you onto a dirt dance floor. She spins around. Two pieces of certain knowledge come into your mind, unbidden, as if a voice were speaking inside your mind: 1) you would give your right pinky finger, actually chop it off and let it bleed, if you could right now escape this life and sit across a dinner table from a man who still found you endlessly interesting, with alcohol that was not beer, and music not bro-reggae, and 2) you would give the same pinky finger to preserve this life and this brief and golden window, this moment in which your daughter demands that you dance with her.
Your shoes scrape on the gravel. You have the strange feeling that once, almost in another life, you were very angry about something, but you can’t quite remember what it was. You notice a dude in a Beer Camp T-shirt. “Hey,” you say to your daughter. “Maybe you should learn Danish!” She shrieks and runs away from you.
You are married. You have two kids. You will be 40 soon. Nothing is really exactly as you had planned. All of your choices feel inevitable and wrong. You know, somehow, that the dark cloud hanging at the edge of the horizon is a portent of change and upheaval. Or maybe it’s not. A cormorant plunges into the Pacific with a plume of white spray.
If you decide to give up and run away and sell everything you own and move to Rio de Janeiro, turn to page 789.
If you decide to double down on Mergers and Acquisitions by pushing your children into Calculus BC and financial derivatives, turn to page 192.
If you decide to stay in the beer garden — for now, just for now — thereby accepting the choices that led you to the garden as given and unchangeable truths, then turn back to page 111.
Michelle Chihara (MFA, PhD UC Irvine) is editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Review of Books. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Studies in American Fiction, n+1, Trop Magazine, Green Mountains Review, the Santa Monica Review, Echoes, Mother Jones, and The Boston Phoenix, among others. Her research involves real estate, financial panics, and contemporary culture. You can find her online at michellechihara.com.
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