Peak Performance

by J. Fallthrough

“It's not like a lobotomy at all,” Dr. Esther said. I could hear the frustration in her voice. I had interrupted her to say that the procedure she was describing sounded an awful lot like one, and that I knew about Frances Farmer and that Kennedy sister that they kept hidden away. “Not at all. Not at all, she said. “Yes, the Neurovana chip is implanted through the eye, but the whole thing is the opposite of lobotomy. Lobotomies destroyed the self. Neurovana lets you manifest it at full capacity.” I shifted in my bed and put the phone on speaker because holding it to my ear was exhausting me.

            I hadn't been manifesting at anywhere near full capacity for a long time. Dr. Esther knew that. My mother knew it too and they we're both getting tired of my underperformance. Of the two, of course, Dr. Esther was the only one obligated to provide a solution and the longer she didn't the more resentful Mom grew. When she paid the monthly bills she now made a show of saying, “Rent, Cable, Dr. Esther …”

            “I've personally seen patients like you turn around after the procedure and I've reviewed the data. It's safe; it's effective.” Dr. Esther said.

I asked if it hurt and she told me that most people reported some mild discomfort afterward, but not much more than that.

“What about adding another weekly session?” I knew Mom couldn't afford that, but I asked because the idea of someone injecting a chip into my brain scared me and I had come to think of talk therapy like some sort of risk-free spell casting. If only Dr. Esther and I traded the right words an errant high-performing self would come forth like some kind of anti-demon. If we didn't, well, at least no one had cut into my brain. Although I never told her that I thought this way I suspected Dr. Esther knew, because once, in exasperation after I'd declined another medication, she said she practiced medicine, not witchcraft. 

            Neurovana seemed a little like cheating, like avoiding the “work” that Dr. Esther had said we were doing together. There was silence on the line while I searched for another word for “cheating.” I couldn't come up with it and couldn't stand the quiet any longer so I blurted out “Isn't this cheating?” “Cheating?” Dr. Esther said. “Yeah, like if this … pump in my brain makes me better am I'm really better? Isn't this just some kind of … of … artificial enhancement?” I wanted to say something about how coming out of my malaise on my own would represent a kind of victory over myself, but when I tried to think of a way to say that I just got confused. Was I less myself because of my retreat to bed? Maybe I was more.

“It's not a pump. It's an electrode that fixes a malfunction. That's all it does. It makes you your best by correcting an impairment. It's not going to give you any advantage, other than returning you to a normal state of functioning—your normal. This isn't some artificial leg up.” That wasn't quite what I meant by cheating, but I didn't have the energy to argue.

“Don't you want to work? To socialize? To be useful? Remember when you did those things? Don't you want that back?” Dr. Esther said. I wasn't sure I did. I know my mother wanted those things and I had a history of mistaking her wants for mine. I liked lying in bed, particularly in the early hours when I could see the expanse of the day rolled out before me like some pristine tundra that would remain untrammeled. What was so bad about emptiness? That's what I thought. What I said to Dr. Esther was simply, “Yes.” She had another call to take, so she said she'd email me more info on the Neurovana procedure and we hung up.

I went to the kitchen to make breakfast. Mom was already there in her pink terrycloth robe that was tight around her hips. She poured pancake batter into a skillet. She looked up at me, threw the hand that held a spatula back a bit and said “Well?”

“Yeah, we talked. She's going to send me more info.”

“I know you talked. What did Dr. Esther say?” Before I could answer she added, “And how much do I owe her for it?”      

I rolled my eyes.

“What did she say?” Mom asked again.

“That she thinks Neurovana would … er … help.”

“It can't hurt at this point. I saw something on TV about it the other day. It's helping a lot of people.”

“So they say.”

My mother turned the pancakes.

“Well, do you have a better idea? You might given the money I spent on the Brighton School and then on Carrington and then for your master's degree. You'd think you'd be unlocking the secrets of the universe by now.”
            She flipped the pancakes onto a plate and spread butter and top of each one. Then she poured so much syrup over them that a little lake formed around the tall stack making it look like an island.

“You know this can't go on. We barely cover the rent after I pay for the cost of your gabbing with Dr. Esther.” She made a chattering movement with her hand. “I applied for food stamps the other day. Never in my life have I had to ask for help to feed mys—”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know, Mom, I know. We're borderline homeless because of me. How about you stop stuffing your face for a few minutes? Maybe you could afford food then.” I made the same chattering motion with my hand, but this time it was to indicate gobbling.

Mom tightened her lips. She took a fork and knife out of the utensil drawer and slammed it shut so the silverware rattled. She loaded the plate onto the seat of her walker. I heard her mutter “cheating” as she rolled it out of the kitchen. 

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Dr. Esther had exaggerated the pain level of the Nuerovana procedure. I didn't even have mild discomfort and, believe it or not, I chatted with the doctor and nurses while they installed it. She may have underplayed the benefits too. I started feeling differently immediately. I mean, like as I was in the cab on the way home from the clinic, I had the driver pull over at a gym so I could take out a membership.

            When I got home Mom was sitting in the living room eating from a plastic bin of powdered mini-donuts with her feet up on her walker. Her knotty toe knuckles jutting up like a miniature mountain range. The blinds were half drawn and a stripe of light cut across her face. She looked old. The bags under her eyes reminded me chrysalises. I tried to imagine her young, but for the first time couldn't conjure up the images of her in the youth she had endlessly talked about when I was growing up. Mom had been a beauty and to hear her tell at “a glass half-full sort surrounded by people who couldn't even see the fucking glass.” Her ambitions had withered from lack of nurturance. No one had believed in Mom and Mom believed in no one but me.

            “And?” she said, “How did it go?”

            “Too soon to tell,” I said.

            “The procedure itself. How did that go?”

            “Oh fine, fine,” I said and headed for my bedroom.

            I heard the walker roll up just after I had closed the door. In lieu of knocking Mom rammed the door with the walker wheels and then came in. Her robe was flecked with powdered sugar.

            “When did they say this will … you know … take effect?”

            “I showed you the pamphlet Dr. Esther sent. It said within a week or two.”

            “Have you talked to Dr. Esther today? What if it doesn't work? What's the backup?”

            “The backup?”

            “Yeah, if this isn't a fix, what does Dr. Esther propose?”

            Mom's face demanded an answer. She had seen my withdrawal as a malfunction and Dr. Esther as a mechanic of the mind.

            “That I go on food stamps too and we live together until we're evicted from this shithole and wind up on the streets. She thinks we could put together some sort of Judy and Liza panhandling routine that could keep us going for a while. Who knows? We might even make a fortune off it.”

            Mom's face tightened.

            “So, now I can't even ask a simple question?” A spray of spit flew from her mouth. “I only pay the bills. I only worked myself sick so you could have the best of everything. The best education. The best piano teacher. The best clothes. The best summer camp. And when that wasn't enough the best fucking therapist. Nothing less than that for you. I guess I'm just stupid for wanting to know what I'm going to get for—” She stopped herself and then said, “Oh, I know, I know. Everyone just thinks I'm an idiot.”

            “That's not true. Some people think you're crazy.”

            The good thing about Mom getting so old and fat and immobile was that her rages were now a lot less physical. In the old days that kind of comment would have had her smashing every glass we owned to the floor as she cursed her life. Now she just gripped her walker and slammed the door behind her.

            I heard the TV in Mom's bedroom came to life and she flipped through a few channels until she settled on an infomercial for something called the “miracle skillet.” Mom loved watching these things. They had a calming effect on her and I think she admired people who could put their all into something like a handbag line or a floor cleaner.

            I started looking for a job that night and for the first time in a while slept less than ten hours. I had forgotten how impressive my resume was and how I exceeded the qualifications of most of the jobs that interested me. I decided I would explain the gap between my last position, which I left to go to bed, and today by claiming I was caring for a sick mother who had since passed on.

            It wasn't long before I was hired on at a marketing firm that specialized in branding and promoting law firms. I climbed the ranks quickly and effortlessly. I made friends or at least went out with my coworkers for drinks a few times a month. I discovered I had a taste for syrupy cocktails that snuck up as slow as a kitten and then seized you all at once. I rarely credited Neurovana for making everything so easy. Dr. Esther was right, I had decided, the implant was just making me more myself. It had cut out the chatter and misdirection that had taken residence in me like some mental squatter.

Every month the firm gave out the P.E.A.K. Performance Award. P.E.A.K. stood for “Professionalism, Excellence, Ambition, Kindness.” I was in my sixth month when I received it. It came with a luncheon and before the CEO handed me the award certificate with the letters P.E.A.K. embossed in gold he made a point to stress that while my work was stellar it was my kindness that he really wanted to commend. “Dasha took a year and half away from her career to care for her mother. That's kindness in action,” he said.

            A few days after that I smelled something sweet as I woke up. I followed it into the kitchen and found Mom at the stove. “Brioche French toast for the peak performer,” she said. She pronounced it like “broach.” She had the same strange smile she got when I played a piece particularly well at a piano recital. When I was a kid I'd get an instant headache at that smile, which looked less like a facial expression and more like evidence of some sort of possession.

I noticed my shoulder bag on the table, open, and the award certificate on the table.

I looked at Mom and her smile fell away.

“What?” she said.

“You searched my bag?”

“No, of course not. The award was just … sticking out of it. You know, you had it rolled up and it … just stuck out.”

“So that made it okay for you to help yourself to it?”

The piece of French toast on the griddle started to smoke and give off an acrid smell. Mom pried it off with a spatula and slapped it on a plate.

The fire alarm went off.

            I got a broom from the hallway closet and thrusted the handle up against the alarm on the ceiling. All the while, I screamed at Mom about how I wasn't going to live in a home with no privacy. When the alarm finally quieted, Mom tried to play sheepish and said “I just wanted to celebrate. I'm so proud of you.” “Celebrate? What the hell have you got to do with it?” But Mom had everything to do with it and that's why I said nothing else, but hurled the broom down the hallway like a I was throwing a spear.

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After I moved out Mom came up with endless excuses to call me. She started out pretending that she was trying to be helpful. Could she help with decorating the new apartment? Did I need me to run errands for me? What about making some food for the freezer? I had started dating one of the lawyers who hired our firm to market him as someone you could turn to without shame when it was time declare bankruptcy, and turned off the phone when we were together. It never failed that when I turned it on again I found voice mails from Mom. It was when we were out to dinner at a vegan restaurant that Mom messages turned angry. “That fucking implant in your head is only reason you're doing so good and the only reason you have that is because of me,” she said. There was an infomercial for a set of costume jewelry playing in the background.

            The calls got uglier and more frequent from there. Once when a co-worker noticed my phone buzzing around every ten minutes she asked if everything was okay. I told her I had an ex-boyfriend who couldn't let go. She looked at me with concern in her face. “I'm not sure I'm ready to let go either,” I said. She smiled knowingly.

            It was when I was soaking in a hot tub at a spa that was formerly the country estate of a financier who was rumored to have mob ties that I decided to answer when Mom called. Bruce, the lawyer, was playing golf and I was alone in a steaming bath that had fresh lavender floating in it. I said “Hello” and heard only an informercial for some kind of custom trail mix. “You can use it with anything. For breakfast, it's great on yogurt,” the first woman said. “When I make pumpkin soup I throw a handful in,” the second woman said. “Ah, yes, in soup, in salads.” “You know, this is the kind of thing when you just want some quick protein you can pop a handful in your mouth.” “Add some chocolate chips to it and you've got a dessert.” “I made Mix n' Munch to be versatile. It took me a long time in the kitchen to come up with just the right balance, but when I finally did—wow!—it was like nothing I'd ever had before. I called my best girlfriend and said come on over, girl, we're having a champagne and Mix n' Munch party.” Laugher. “This deal is going fast.” “That's right. Ten pounds, all organic, free shipping for $35. It's not coming back, so order now.”

            I waited for Mom to say something. I put the phone on speaker and leaned back and closed my eyes, inhaling the lavender. One of the women started talking about how Mix n' Munch was the perfect snack to send to school with your kids. “That's right, as a snack or even part of their lunch.” Mom hung up after that.

            That night Bruce and I had a quiet dinner and when we went back to our room, he turned on the TV. A report came on about how Neurovana was now being used to prevent depression, anxiety, and other conditions that keep us from peak performance. Best of all, you didn't even need the implant anymore. Using state-of-the art nanotechnology the chips could be made a small as dust particles and inhaled. They were using it in some schools with impressive results. Bruce thought this was creepy. I have my reservations, but I'm not sure I see a better option.