Factory Settings

“Besides,” Michelle said, “Zoff’s coming tonight. You must be nasty to her.”

“Who’s Zoff?” I asked.

“Zoff’s a slut.” As if to clarify, Michelle added, “She knows Ivan.”

Ivan was a pot-smoking artist with whom Jack shared a house when we were all in our late twenties. They had rented the house with the mutual misunderstanding that the other one would pay the bulk of the rent. They were always in arrears and always about to be evicted. On this evening in the early spring, despite a looming threat of homelessness, Ivan had invited his friends and acquaintances to a party in their garden. Earlier that day he had climbed onto the roof of the house where he smoked a joint and then developed the belief that he could fly. Jack spent an hour standing on the lawn, talking him off the roof.

Jack fumed as he told me about this. “I live here,” he sputtered and jabbed his finger at the floor, “so that he can do that sort of thing for me.”

Now I asked, “Why is Zoff a slut?”

“She always picks out some guy and then zooms in on him,” Michelle said airily. Then she gave me a meaningful look and batted her eyelids. “That’s what sluts do.”

I couldn’t immediately see how zooming in on one guy made you a slut. Then again, all other women were sluts as far as Michelle was concerned. She liked men, even the stupid ones, but she distrusted women. I never heard her say a single good thing about another woman in all the time I knew her. By then, I had known her for a few years. We met the day Jack dislocated his jaw when he tried to eat an extremely large dagwood. At the time, Michelle worked as a nurse in the emergency room of a local hospital. Jack’s jaw had popped out of its moorings on the one side and the muscles in his cheek spasmed and bulged.

“Huck huh!” he slobbered when I tried to pry the dagwood from his hands.

At the emergency room, Michelle was the first person we met. When she saw six-foot-four Jack holding his half-eaten dagwood, she lost it. She doubled over with laughter while Jack tried to forge a smile with his lopsided mouth.

“Haht?” he drooled.

At this, Michelle flopped onto the floor.

The on-call doctor was a minuscule man in John Lennon glasses. “Nurse!” he scolded.

“Oh shut up,” she gasped.

She gathered herself but collapsed again when the doctor had to stand on a stool to wrestle with Jack’s jaw. An hour later they sent him home wearing a cage-like bandage contraption over his head, still holding his dagwood. We all met again the next day when Jack tried to eat the dagwood that he’d kept in his fridge and again dislocated his jaw. This time Michelle fell face-first onto a bed.

“He’s the tallest toddler I’ve ever seen,” she said when we met for coffee the next day. We continued to see one another and a few months later she told me that she loved me. Inexplicably, I couldn’t bring myself to love her back, despite how beautiful and wonderful she was. She had a naughty face and a tiny mole on each cheek. She wore no makeup and no perfume, and didn’t need to. She was well-read and witty and she didn’t take nonsense from gnomes. When I counted what I loved about her, she was perfect. When I summed it, she was not. I didn’t know why.

“What kind of a name is Zoff?” I asked.

Michelle batted her eyelids more rapidly. “You mustn’t let Zoff zoom in on you.”

Michelle didn’t say anything more about Zoff. We sat together under a spreading jacaranda tree at the bottom of the small garden, a few paces from everything else. We were joined by Anna, an intense woman who was doing a PhD in English. We watched as guests arrived and stood around uncertainly. From where we sat we had a perfect vantage point for competitive labelling, a game we loved to play, a game Michelle always won.

“How hideous,” she hissed and nodded at an organic woman in flip-flops. “Look at those feet.”

The woman’s heels were yellow-pink and deeply callused.

“Inflamed pecorino,” Michelle declared.

The woman’s boyfriend had a maroon, pitted nose. “Liver nose,” I said in turn.

Anna cleared her throat. “What are your thoughts on Finnegans Wake?”

We weren’t in the mood for books and wanted to insult people. “Poor Mona,” Michelle continued and lifted a single finger to indicate Lisa, a neurotic artist who was saddled with an inevitable nickname. “I bet her turds don’t flush.”

We carried on like this for a few minutes until we ran out of steam. Ivan hadn’t made an appearance yet and was said to be smoking a joint in his room. There was a large ice bucket filled with beers and a small table on which sat an incongruous boeuf tartare topped with a raw egg, but nothing else. Given that most guests were Ivan’s friends, I was surprised that they had arrived at all. Some weeks earlier, Ivan and Jack had hosted a viewing of Ivan’s latest work—a plank with many Bibles nailed to it. It was a striking piece because the plank was very long, but it was otherwise innocent of skill and visual consonance. Jack and I argued about this the next evening while Ivan surveyed us the way a benevolent uncle might watch his nephews play. Then, one of his friends arrived for the viewing, a day late.

Because Ivan was still inside, Jack had to stand in as the host. We watched as he trudged like a condemned man from group to group, saying things we mercifully couldn’t hear. There were about thirty people in the garden, some poking at the mound of boeuf tartare, some sitting in groups on bales of hay. A few minutes after Jack had finished his rounds and joined us, Ivan appeared on the patio, looking serene, wearing what had to be a bedsheet. He spread his arms in blessing.

“Master!” someone called out from the boeuf tartare. “Feed us!”

Ivan swept into the crowd like Jesus might have if the fish thing hadn’t worked.

“Is he high,” Michelle asked, “or is he stoned?”

“I’ve never understood the words we use,” I said.

We watched as Ivan swallowed the egg.

“But—” Jack protested. He and Anna had been talking quietly but now he towered clumsily over her. He had somehow taken her bait and was now entangled in a disagreement about Finnegans Wake. We didn’t know how it started but it was soon obvious that their argument was useless. Jack loved the book for reasons he could not name while Anna knew its details and hated it. It was oddly satisfying to see someone do to him what he so often did to me. They were strangers, he and this woman, as he and I sometimes were, describing the same moon seen over different landscapes.

“Here comes everybody,” Michelle groaned.

Down the patio steps, with feline poise, came a voluptuous woman in high heels and a short slip dress.


Michelle nodded slowly. “In all her flesh.”

“How old is she?” I asked.


“She looks richer than the rest of us.”

“I think she’s thirty-four or so.”


“I said she would zoom in on you,” Michelle suggested when I stood.

I waved this away and walked over to the boeuf tartare that now stood abandoned. Most guests had gathered around Zoff and I hated myself for also wanting a closer look at the heart of the party. I’ll be nasty to her, I decided, as Michelle had asked. While Zoff greeted people, hugging and pouting her lips, I pecked at what remained of the boeuf tartare and peeked at her.

“Look at you,” Zoff purred and swished her hair from side to side. She’d taken off her high heels and now held them in her one hand. This is what Michelle would do if she ever wore high heels and it annoyed me that Zoff did so too.

“No way!” she laughed and gathered her hair to one side, revealing vivid eyeshadow and glossy lipstick that were quite striking. This annoyed me even more. I didn’t like makeup and yet this honeyed excess seemed almost edible. The more I looked, the more I saw things about her that I also didn’t like—long nails, large breasts, a small waist, and fertile hips. All of it was bad for you, I knew, and yet I wanted it the way I craved candy as a boy.

“I love it,” she squealed at someone.

I forced myself to look away but then I looked again, as many other men were also doing. We couldn’t help ourselves. She fit the exaggerated ideal that nature had stamped, like factory settings, on all of us. I looked elsewhere, but I glanced again, and again. Then I tore myself away and returned to the bottom of the garden.

“And?” Michelle asked as I sat down.

“Lip gloss.”

“Slut,” thus Michelle. Then, “And what else?”

“Big breasts,” I mumbled.

“Oh, bummer.”

“You don’t get it,” I complained. “I don’t want to ogle them.”

“Yet you do.”

“It’s a default setting. Alert! Alert!—big tits at 10 o’clock. But I like smaller ones.”

“Poor you,” Michelle sighed. “You’ve been customised.”

“You knew this would happen, didn’t you?”

“Go on,” she said and made a small circle with her hand.

“If I’m wired to look at women—fine. But why can’t I choose which ones?”

“Isn’t it the same thing?”

“Why aren’t women wired to look at muscled men?”

“We are,” Michelle said, “but we don’t look. That would be stupid.” She patted my hand and motioned at me. “Under all of that, you’re just a primitive beast.”

I wanted to say something but I couldn’t think of anything that wasn’t worse than things I’d already said.

“When Zoff zooms in,” Michelle added, “you can tell her all about it.”

When Zoff zoomed in, I promised myself, I wasn’t going to tell her anything. I wasn’t even going to be nasty. I would treat her with indifference and simply move on. I fetched some beers and for a few minutes, Michelle and I just studied the other guests. Saying bad things about people was something we did despite a fascination with humans and all their weirdness. Even Pecorino Heels and Liver Nose would be interesting in some way, and we knew it. We watched as Ivan lit a fire and left his apostles to multiply two steaks and five sausages for the masses. We listened as Jack and Anna negotiated a series of infinitesimal compromises that moved them from their original argument about Joyce to a wholehearted agreement about Nabokov. Zoff had finished pouting and now stood a few steps away in conversation with two men. Her sugary perfume washed past us.

“When Zoff zooms in,” I asked Michelle quietly, “what does she do?”


“Well,” I hesitated, “she’s coming this way. Just tell me.”

Michelle leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. “She goes for men with girlfriends.”

“So it’s just a game then?”

“I don’t know,” Michelle said flatly.

Before I could ask again, Zoff stepped away from the two men and turned to us.

“Jack,” she said. “Michelle.”

“Zoe,” Michelle nodded. “How’ve you been?”

Jack stood and hugged her awkwardly.

“This is Zoe,” Michelle said and introduced us.

“Hello,” Zoe nodded, as stiffly as Michelle had. “Anna, nice to see you.”

They spoke for a minute or two while I stood by, unseen. I had secretly hoped that Zoe would be a certified goddess and that my appeal to factory settings would be justified, but it wasn’t so. Up close, she was as flawed as anyone else. I was relieved to see that her lipstick had smudged her teeth and that her bosom had shifted with all the hugging.

“What!?” I seethed when she’d moved away and was out of earshot. “Zoe?”

“I don’t like her,” Michelle smiled.

“So you just gave her another name?”

“Zoff is better.”

“She didn’t even look at me—”

“Maybe I was wrong,” Michelle agreed. “Maybe you’re not her type.”

“How come you all know her and I don’t?” I asked.

“I’ve met her once before,” Jack said. “Michelle knows her better. Why should she look at you?”

“I said that she would,” Michelle cut in.

“Oh,” Jack nodded as he considered this. Then he turned to talk to Anna.

Michelle and I continued to argue about the truth but it was as useless as the argument Jack and Anna had had earlier.

“Zoff, Zoe,” she said. “Who cares?”

I care,” I protested. “Plus, you said things to make me see her.”

“You would’ve seen her anyway,” Michelle countered. She gestured to include all men. “She’s your type.”

“But still—”

“Newsflash, mister. Women have a printout of your default settings.”


“How do you think some of us look like Zoe in the first place?”

As she said this, I realised that the last thing I’d want was for her to look like Zoe. With her impish grin and her tiny moles, Michelle was more beautiful than Zoe could ever be.

“I guess some have to,” I muttered.

“And the rest of us hate it,” Michelle said.

This reminded me of Miss Naudé, our busty tenth-grade geography teacher. She was in her twenties at the time and the boys in her classroom were giddy with lust. She often bent slowly across her desk to reach for something, a calculated act that we embraced with more enthusiasm than the girls in the class did. Michelle had a point. If women like Zoe could beguile all men, why could she not beguile just one of them? I had betrayed her, and I had sold out all the women I would ever truly like.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

Michelle leaned her head on my shoulder and whispered, “You’re my type.”

Now, thirty years later, my impulse to do anything when prompted by factory settings has blissfully faded. I still peek at women, of course, but I know that none of them will zoom in on me now. The young ones are silly girls and the women of my age are far too smart to go around pouting or swishing their hair about, as Zoe had done that evening. Yet the end state is not without loss. While I wouldn’t want to be back in that part of my life, I would like to visit it from time to time. I would sit again under the jacaranda tree later that evening, after Zoe and many others had left, and watch Ivan as he fruitlessly fiddles with a hookah pipe. I would listen again as Jack and Anna slowly rediscover their disagreement about Joyce. Most of all, I would smell the first hints of jasmine on the cooling spring air and again watch Michelle as she falls asleep with her head in my lap.

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