LARB Lit: Choose

A broad-shouldered woman with elaborately braided hair appears in a boat. The metal is cool to the touch. It turns out he goes to your high school. A smell of sulfur rises in your nostrils just as: You and your companion are vaporized!!  
If you think the girls with the lip gloss are the EVIL ones, turn to page 32.  
 
You and Max sit together in a coffee shop full of thrift shop furniture that does not match. She motions toward the girls’ bathroom. His name is Max. Is it okay to want ersatz grill marks? Zero pockets, zero change, zero phone calls. You hate this resort, a beached luxury cruise liner stranded on a cliff of overmulched landscaping strangling the coast. You stand paralyzed. You ask her, did you just say “PEACH”? A few rows of wooden pews lead up to a dais with a marble statue of a wounded saint. 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. You finger the dusty ribbon. You sit at a picnic table. You say out loud, “Hello? He is an anarchist. But you can’t bring yourself to ask. “What do you have to show for yourself?” it asks.  
 
38. 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 feel suddenly sick to your stomach. “But the ladies want a nice wedding, eh?!”
And then you hate him, too. You sit in the back seat of your friend’s Cabriolet convertible, smashed up against a boy named Max. Who is that?”
On the bluff, you stand holding your infant and looking out at the Pacific. A voice gently speaks: “Regret always feels more perceptive than foresight, but this is itself a lie.”
You look at the nearest plumeria bush. Max has been hit with an alien sting ray! It looks as if something heavy, on a rectangular base, has been dragged through the dust and out a wooden door at the back. Choosing math and science just ended the story. You do not know how to make choices based on this fear. Enroll exclusively in honors science and math, and turn to page 13. Late sun slants over the place where the manicured gardens give way to California sage. He makes another Danish Noise. 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. The maid of honor makes a sour face. All of your choices feel inevitable and wrong. You have two kids. “I wouldn’t open that, if I were you,” says the statue. You wish aliens would vaporize you now. Where am I?”
The saint’s pale marble face smiles gently. You take a deep breath. You stand shivering by the ticket kiosk. If you decide to follow Milly to all of her art classes, turn to page 12. You sit down in front of your mother at the kitchen table and ask for a serious conversation about relationships. You will be 40 soon. He opens his hands, palms up. His tongue flicks into your mouth and surprises you, but a good surprise, like an unexpected guest. A man’s.  
            If you decide to skip forward to your early 20s, turn to page 197. A waiter brings you a drastically overpriced Pale Ale in a plastic cup. She spins around.  
If you decide to follow your cousin to a Zen retreat at the Buddhist convent, turn to page 3. Hurt without explanation or cause. You know, somehow, that the dark cloud hanging at the edge of the horizon is a portent of change and upheaval. “Maybe you should learn Danish!” She shrieks and runs away from you. You open the gate to the courtyard. The music soars. It all seems very eerie, especially because you have decided that she is EVIL. 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. She looks at you as if you have something weird on your face. Farewell brave one!  
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. In the space between the barrel vaults, your life takes the shape that you want it to take. A trickle of blood runs from the corner of his mouth. You suddenly want very badly for him to understand. A man’s smell. You close your eyes. Later, he sits down next to you at the top of the upper quad staircase. You are angry. 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. 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. A salt breeze rises from the ocean at dusk. Can I find a different ending?”
“There are no endings here,” says the saint. Instead, you approach the natural-lipped girls. 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. “That’s before you pay for anything else,” she scoffs. “You have successfully avoided choosing friends who are Evil. In your senior year, you win the Very Best At Science Prize, and a trip to Denmark. Three times you got back on that horse. This is it, the language of skin speaking to other skin. YOU must use all of your numerous talents and much of YOUR enormous intelligence. Eventually, you snort. But I have some pretty great glitter gloss!! The bride from the wedding walks across the plush green lawn.  
498. “Can I back up? On other days, sand dunes. You make very little money, and you resent what you can not afford.”
All you can do is nod and blink in the smoke. “Marriage,” says the pastor, “Marriage is like a successful deal in Mergers and Acquisitions. “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. You suddenly find yourself in a chapel with high whitewashed walls. We are none of us soon-to-be-rich. But it turns out, the gloss carries an antidote. Secretly, you find his Danish noises annoying. If you decide to go to the opera, turn to page 17. You stand before a show ribbon — The E for Effort Prize — pinned to a corkboard on your wall. Max kisses you in the middle of a David Bowie video on MTV. “You are everything that is wrong with our world!” Instead, you pass the five-star hotel restaurant, which you can not afford. 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. Amazingly, you spot the parents of one of your friends. You are a pre-adolescent girl. “Hey,” you say to your daughter. Then she tried to sabotage your wedding dress. In the distance, the Advanced Classical Music Ensemble is practicing Verdi. One of your high heels breaks off. She looks as if she is saying the word PEACH. 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. “So, do I have to wear lip gloss to hang out with you?”
“No, you don’t have to do anything.  
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 choose the “Groupon” for ZOOMZ! You are in your late 20s, at a fancy resort, on a trip mostly paid for by your boyfriend, an older Danish guy. More than anything, you want to know whether Max ever heard the rumors about you and your teacher. A strange man touches your arm. Her fingernails are painted black. You are out on a romantic date. Your teacher fingers a paper cup. She is holding a nubbly sweater and has both freckles and wrinkles. You have both ordered a dish that comes with toast, and for a moment, you discuss grill marks on bread. You realize that you have forgotten your wallet. If you decide that you want to be a writer, turn to page 111. Your older daughter lets go of your hand and runs. Math and science classes, it turns out, are diverting, engaging, and full of cool people!! 111. You scream, “Why are you so mean?!”
The blonde saunters over and picks up the gory doll. Didn’t I see you in the opera?” he asks. tooth-whitening treatments, turn to page 72. 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. THE END. There are dangers, choices, and consequences. 13. He opens the microwave and sighs. Mergers and Acquisitions are laughing at the rest of us. You hate weddings.  
32. Small green men wearing space costumes erupt from behind the Balinese sideboard!! 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. She is with your husband. 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. His mother grew up among Moroccan intellectuals, but his father is a powerful Danish politician, and he is studying economics. You suddenly find yourself in a chapel with high, whitewashed walls. He bounces your daughter up and down in his arms and says, “wheeskWHO wheeskWHO.” The body odor smell is gone. He tells you that he noticed you tucked your leg under you, in your wooden student desk. Young girls and boys stand around in groups. 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.  
3. He is very serious. Gently padded people sing with great intensity about love, death and Mephistopheles. You are both now married to other people. In sculpture class with Milly, you create what is called an art installation. 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.  
If you turn and go back inside the opera house, turn to page 38. You notice a dude in a Beer Camp T-shirt. At least, not today. “Fuck Mergers & Acquisitions!” you want to shout. There, you meet a dashing young Dane named Torben. Cohen pulls off her glasses and squints at you. You hate.  
If you don’t know what to do, turn to page 111. Endless. THE END. On your way out, you see your creative writing teacher standing alone by the snacks table, holding a shrink-wrapped brownie. Limping and without a jacket, you get to the subway station. Every time the turn signal flips, the squeak of it says, “wheeskWHO, wheeskWHO.” You find this extraordinarily funny. You reach your hand forward and place your palm on his forearm, to feel the hairs there. You got a deal on a vacation at a fancy resort. A few rows of simple pews lead up to a dais with a small wooden table. You startle. She does not seem to believe that you were a volunteer usher. You smile with inner peace. He tells you that you have expressive body language. You don’t recognize it. The voice of the officiating pastor booms out over a crackling sound system, the speakers hidden somewhere within the manicured lawns and plumeria bushes. Bone marrow was once a poor person’s food. Finally, after P.E. 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.  
If you decide that it’s no use now, turn to page 498. ¤
 
9. You fault yourself for both knowing and wanting these things. Then he says that any man would be lucky to take you out to dinner. 17. The guy next to you looks about your age. 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. 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. In front of you, the Pacific Ocean is steely blue. You actually want to go to prom. 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. She drags you onto a dirt dance floor. The opera is beautiful. Wanna go get pizza?”
It turns out her name is Milly. From there, you can still hear the snack room microwave whirring. Your body goes numb. You are wearing perfume. Occasionally, you have chosen the organic and vegetarian option. You order fries and you face away from Max for the rest of the whole entire night. “The room with wolves isn’t so bad.             If you decide to try again to get it right, turn to page 1. You run out of the opera house. Grill marks are carcinogenic. “No. It’s just coffee, he tells you, but whenever he drinks coffee, it makes him want to eat something sweet, like a brownie. You can’t quite follow the plot, but the music vibrates at the base of your spine. You and the Dane go to the beer garden. In this world, blonde girls who DON’T wear lip gloss are, in fact, EVIL. The be-glossed girl in red jeans beckons you with her finger, across the expanse of asphalt. © PowersThatBe 1974
Halt MacFillian: London, Bainbridge. “Thirty K!  
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. Your voice dies in your throat. 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. These books foster important skills in young people.”
Lawrence Cohen, Educational Testing Services
Beware and warning!! They shift their weight and smile. I was just trying to tell you to avoid the milk in the cafeteria at all costs.”
“Cool,” you say. 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. And yet, here you sit, in a beer garden, feeling dissatisfied with a Dane. 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. At school, in the snack room, Max is microwaving a Hot Pocket. A voice emanates, gently, from the smoke near the grill. You are terrified of getting stuck in the middle of a bench among strangers. Max’s spine goes rigid and his eyes roll back into his head. Your shoes scrape on the gravel. You go back inside, and as the second act lets out, you stand on the grand mezzanine scanning the crowds. A wedding is taking place on the bluff at the edge of the gardens. She wears lip gloss. “It’s the lip gloss,” she says. Lower down on the path. Your dress has zero pockets. He grins and says that depends on the restaurant. A guy in a tank top plays something you believe is called bro-reggae. As you drag your daughter away, you think about your own wedding, now five years past. A bitter taste rises on your tongue that feels like your body rebelling against itself. 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. The natural-lipped girls steal other things from you — money, books, English papers. Pain that comes not to you, but to those you love.”
You back away from the door. Each time, I couldn’t find a path that didn’t lead me through a stupid affair with my perverted teacher.  
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. He crunches into grill-marked toast. Bad luck, just beyond. The planes of his face carve canyons of shadows, until you pass under a streetlight. 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.  
If you decide to stay forever at the Zen Center, turn to page 14. The Dane loves beer gardens. She runs her finger over the ketchup, sticks it in her mouth, sucks. The wrong decision could end in despair,evere emotional paralysis, or even DEATH.  
If you decide to drop out of creative writing and go back to math and science, turn to page 13. 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. These girls, without lip gloss, stand by the tether ball in plain jeans and sensible colors. You think of your evil pony, Chester, who bucked you off three times. You raise your eyebrows. You can feel the aria’s melody slipping away. He tells you that beneath your skirt, the underwear you are wearing is purple with white flowers. It takes preparation. 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. The Nobel Prize in Science, American Airlines, and Danish socialism appear to you, in this moment, as pillars of the earth, eternal and blessed. They do not want to go to prom, but they want to go out. You wonder at your own sudden, superficial anxiety in front of Max, even after all these years. You pass a wedding being held on a bluff, over the ocean. Your teacher puts his hand over yours, on the arm rest of the chair. You hate her. You and YOU ALONE   are in charge of how events unfold in this story. If you disassociate and follow through with the kiss, turn to page 198. “Can I help you?” His soft green sweater looks welcoming, but you can see his eyes slip down to your breasts. On some days, behind that door lies a dirt road laced with land mines. You consider throwing yourself down the steep drop at the edge of the path. You notice she wears no lip gloss. If you take Creative Writing with Max, turn to page 9. 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! You tell the driver, “LAX please!”
 
THE END
¤
12. After the kiss, he leans back and looks at you. Everything that has led you here drops away. He tells you he likes your bangs. 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. Suddenly, you are transported by terror. 111. You put your hand on the brass doorknob. You write that your art is about memory and time. “Makes my caffeine habit that much worse for me.” He smiles. Nachos themselves. She will be your best friend from now until college. Your life has been short and sweet.  
            If you decide to start over by starring in a reality television show called TEMPTATIONS: A LOVE CRUISE, turn to page 72. “Are you alright? Torben is suddenly able to work in the United States while you complete your graduate work!! MAY 20, 2017
Choose! Some wear lip gloss, some do not. It turns out you were wrong! It leaves a stripe of ash on his cheek. You choose to walk over to the girl with the red jeans and lip gloss. A cormorant plunges into the Pacific with a plume of white spray. “I don’t understand,” you say. The era when you dreamed of pony-ranching and wrote a novel about a girl and her pony has just come to an end. “These books are like games. He is correct. They pretend to be your friends for two months before stealing your Maxi pads. “Leech?!” she says cheerfully. You concoct a lie about being a volunteer usher. Prussian Blue. Your mother tried to wear white to walk you down the aisle. You left this man, your teacher, standing alone at the opera, and he seems to have the grace not to mention it. When your teacher puts his hand on your arm, you can feel yourself frowning and trying not to frown. 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. This lasts until you are 24. You walk through the expansive hotel grounds, holding his hand. 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. They carry strange guns. You follow her to pizza gladly. The jungle gym stands empty above its woodchips.  
If you decide that you will instead experiment with lesbianism, turn to page 111
128. Everyone piles out at a ’50s-themed diner. You decide to save these fears for later. “Do you remember that you told me going out to dinner was for petty bourgeois snobs?”
“It is,” he says. Their lips are bone dry. You push your teacher’s hand away, your heart beating. Maybe it was never there. A Journey
Through Adolescence!! You wonder if your lip gloss is too sparkly for daytime wear. When you are alone, you ask whether he thinks going out to dinner is stupid and bourgeois. A blonde leans in. “Only sluts wear lip gloss.  
If you show up at Max’s house, after dark, one Friday when you hear his parents will be away, turn to page 128. Nothing is really exactly as you had planned. He looks out the window, swallows. There’s no other way forward. 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. You have worn red jeans, unapologetically. And then there she is, her dark hair against the flash of the ocean. Why not?” you ask. Cohen!” Your voice sounds unnaturally high. ¤
11. Mrs. In the distance, something howls. But you don’t have time to wonder who or why. ¤
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. 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. You have worked hard in school, tried to find time to exercise. Tomorrow, you will face the furies of junior high school.             If you stand up on a picnic table to denounce the fever dream of late capitalist excess, turn to page 86. You hang tiny mirrors in the shape of hourglasses in the corner of the school auditorium. If you agree to take a long hike up the Strawberry Canyon fire road with mister creative writing, turn to page 194. 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. The next week you go out on prom night with a group of friends. That is the nature of this page. She says, “So, like, did you mean to wear culottes to school?” The rest of them giggle. You feel sure you have done it wrong. They look shrunken and vicious behind warped transparent plastic masks. They serve bone marrow and truffled foie gras with cranberry and something else. Behind the statue, a door. You don’t choose her. 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? You develop a raging crush on your creative writing teacher. “I made different choices. — garden of beer, natural wonder where the cat piss grows? 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. He has thick blond-red hair on his arm, a man’s hair, beginning at the wrist.  
If you decide to double down on Mergers and Acquisitions by pushing your children into Calculus BC and financial derivatives, turn to page 192. You ask if he maybe might want to maybe go out to dinner maybe or the opera or maybe hamburgers with you.  
If you don’t know what to do, turn to page 111. 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. Suddenly, as the smell of sulfur rises in your nostrils, you remember: You are allergic to heirloom cabbage beets!! You try very hard not to think about this. You close your eyes. A voice gently speaks: “Some of the girls on the playground are good, and some are evil. Anaphylactic shock and DEATH ensues. THE END. Your body is slow, molasses, holding the baby. Above the dais, in the white wall, is a plain wooden door. In equal measure, you long for it. You are wearing an outfit that cost one half of one quarter of one opera ticket. Full of sonar-confused whales. 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. He invites you to see an opera with him.  
            If you don’t know what to do, turn to page 111. You and Torben, the It-couple of Copenhagen!! Your art teacher tells you that it is a nice concept, but that teenagers shouldn’t make art about memory and time. It takes work.”
Every bone in your body wants to strip naked and run across the lawn. You look at Max. “Thirty thousand dollars is perhaps too expensive,” he says. Then, in the muscles of his jaw, you see the twitch of a smile. Nonetheless, she agrees to drive you home. CHOOSE FROM 47 ENDINGS!! 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.   In her absence, the room smells vaguely of sulfur. He looks sheepish and alone. You are married. You stain your culottes, which you continue to wear, because you like them, dammit. 2029. “No? You know this smell primarily, or only, from your father. At the Zen Center for Meditation and Openness, you sit down to a vegan lunch of locally grown kale and heirloom cabbage beet stew. This book is different from other books. one day, you open your locker to find a decapitated Cabbage Patch doll smeared with ketchup. The tire swing, on its three chains, rotates. Panicking, you call out for your husband. She likes art. “Endings give context, they provide closure.” He shrugs, and blood trickles from his shoulder. Before food, drink, chairs.” You and your boyfriend both make disgusted sounds. You can smell your teacher’s sweat, which smells, for lack of a better word, grown-up. 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. Your five-year-old daughter, wearing a pirate costume, runs onto the lawn and crashes the bridal party photograph. “Because behind that door lies an empty room surrounded by wolves,” says the saint.           Choose Your Own Adventure is a trademarked copyright of Halt MacFillian Youth. For the poison. Beer Camp. “Hi, Mrs. Or maybe it’s not. 1. 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. If you think the girls with lip gloss are the GOOD ones, turn to page 11. 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 try to think of what to say. Your daughter takes your hand and demands that you put down the baby. 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. You plant both feet on the black industrial rubber mats. 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.  
14. Your whole thigh is pressed against his whole thigh.