THE TRUTH ABOUT LIFE, An excerpt
A text by the 2013 Sozopol Fiction Seminars fellow Diana Spechler. The Truth About Life was first published on Five Chapters in 2010
he says, I'll go to sleep and not wake up.
You tell him no. You're talking to yourself.
The sensation Tia experiences after crossing all those time zones, taking all those naps, eating all those tiny meals punctuated by un-American desserts, wiping her hands with all those hot washcloths offered to her from a basket, is less like jet lag than like a fever. Before landing, she stuffs herself into the tiny bathroom, sniffs inside her hooded sweatshirt, spritzes herself with too much perfume, wets the top of her hair as if to make her ponytail sleek. She stares in the mirror. She looks like death. She splashes water on her face.
All week, she told everyone that she'd won a trip. The lie made no sense – Tia doesn't win things. And besides, in this economy, who's giving away plane tickets?
"A raffle," she told her boss, who was also Charlie's boss, which meant she had to be careful. She had considered saying "charity auction," but with that one word, raffle, she painted herself passive; she was simply consenting to fate.
"A fucking raffle?" Charlie said over the phone.
"I'll only be gone a week."
"I don't get it. Where will you stay? What if–"
"Some hotel. With the other raffle winners. I mean, I'll have my own room."
"But what if–"
"I'll buy a calling card. You'll never know I left."
Two weeks ago, around the time she stopped wearing her engagement ring, Tia met Dominick at a birthday party on an enclosed terrace (working for a nonprofit means occasional pity invites), where everyone was fancy and no one knew whose birthday it was. By comparison, Dominick, with his spacious smile and loosened tie, seemed as carefree as a canoe. But the next night, on their first date, he kept checking his phone.
Tia's own phone rested deep inside her purse. Charlie had been calling frequently with updates: "We have the hospice bed set up in the kitchen. I've been lying with him in it. He doesn't know it's me." And, "It's snowing. I forgot how much it snows here." And, "These nurses are celestial beings."
She wasn’t sure why she'd conjured the image, but when Tia imagined the hospice nurses, she saw Amish women: translucent bonnets; long, dark dresses with puffed-up sleeves; Charlie lifting a synthetic skirt to run a hand up a pale, supple thigh, while snow fell past the picture window onto the frozen lake.
Dominick tucked his Blackberry into his breast pocket and looked at Tia hard. "Do you know what I do?" he asked.
Tia did know. He was an international bank's Asian project manager. Although he was from New Jersey, he worked in Tokyo – but he was "doing business" in New York all week. Though she wasn't sure what any of this entailed, Tia recognized money when she saw it. After all, that was her job: All day, she wrote letters, made phone calls, stuffed gift baskets, in hopes of procuring money from people with too much money.
"You told me," Tia said.
Dominick chuckled, set his martini on his cocktail napkin, and leaned across the lacquered table. He had gray eyes that made no promises; neat hair, a wide, masculine face. His body was large, the kind that would gladly relax into obesity if he missed a few weeks at the gym. The night before, Tia hadn't found him particularly appealing until he'd mentioned that he'd gone to Yale. "Do you know what I do?" he asked again.
"Okay, maybe I don't," Tia said. "What do you do?"
"I make things happen."
When Tia laughed, she meant no harm. She thought he was joking. In fact, her laughter was forced because she didn't find the joke funny. She stopped abruptly when she saw him flinch.
A tall waitress approached their table, carrying a wooden cruise ship. "Your sushi," she whooshed, docking the ship between them. She made it sound sexual. Her lips were bright red and blindingly glossy.
"I didn't mean to laugh at you," Tia told Dominick.
"But you should," he said, smiling, his earlobes turning pink. "I didn't grow up with sisters, you know." He smoothed his napkin over his lap. "Laugh at me! Please! Sometimes I forget myself. Sometimes I'm such an asshole."
Dominick's hotel was shiny like a rocket ship. The television in the elevator showed a silent movie. His room was at least three times the size of Tia's and Charlie's studio apartment.
"My humble abode," he said. Of course he said that. He yanked a metal chain and the blinds zipped aside to reveal glittery Midtown – the confident angles of skyscrapers, the red checkmark of approval on the Verizon building.
Tia heard her cell phone ringing in her purse. She took the call in the bathroom.
Charlie wanted to tell her about helping his father brush his teeth. "He was brushing in slow motion. So I had him sit on the toilet lid and then I took his elbow and moved it up and down. I thought I could remind him."
Tia looked in the mirror. The long waves of her hair were tousled. Her eyeliner was smudged, but her eyes looked lit up. She practiced a sexy smile.
"But when I let go," Charlie said, "he just stopped and held the toothbrush there. It really goes to show the truth about life. You've got no one but yourself."
"Before someone taught him how to brush his teeth, he didn't know how. And now at the end of his life, he's back where he started. It's all an illusion – people teaching us things, people giving us things. He just…" Charlie was crying.
Tia turned from the mirror. She sat on the cold floor and closed her eyes. She'd heard Charlie cry so many times in the past year, his tears now fell on the invisible tarp that had spread around her body. Sometimes when he cried, laughter welled up within her, threatening to spill out if she so much as drew a breath. It was only when she was alone, when she was not bearing the weight of Charlie's arms around her neck, that she would think of his father, or else she would think of her own father – a shy man who always looked past Tia's head for her mother – or else she'd think of the fat woman at work who flirted with the boss, or of those depressing New Year's Eve noisemakers that unfurled, then curled back into themselves. It was when she was alone and thinking that she felt an impossible sadness.
When Tia returned to Dominick, she perched primly on the arm of the loveseat. "I can't sleep with you."
Dominick tugged at the knot of his tie, then eased it off his neck. He extracted his collar stays and tossed them on a table. "Of course you can."
"I just met you."
"I haven't shaved my legs."
"I'll call the front desk and have them send up a razor." He came to stand beside her, unwrapping the chocolate that had been left on the pillow. "I know you think I'm some kind of troglodyte–"
"Some kind of…?"
"Douchebag Wall Street guy."
"Oh! No, I–"
"But I like au naturel girls. Chicks who go camping. Who masturbate without a vibrator."
Tia giggled. Then she bit her lip. She couldn't get a read on Dominick. She briefly touched her forehead to his sleeve. He smelled like clean, wished-upon coins from a fountain.
He popped the chocolate into his mouth. "God, that’s good."
"I'm not really au naturel."
"You strike me as a bit of a hippie chick."
Tia shrugged. "I'm just broke." She shook her head. "I can't sleep with you," she said again, remembering that past summer in Michigan, when Charlie's father, batting away a clattering cough, had taught her how to fish. Of course, she said nothing to Dominick about reeling up her first perch, watching it squirm and flop on the hook. Or about how later that night, she had sobbed so hard, Charlie had taken her outside, found the bucket of fish they'd caught, and released them into the lake. The story wouldn't have made sense anyway, after all the sushi she'd eaten. "I just … can't," she said. "I'm sorry, Dominick." But then she slept with him anyway.
Even though Tia more or less moved into Dominick's hotel suite, ate room service for breakfast, let him take her salsa dancing; even though she didn't know how to salsa dance, yet believed she was doing it correctly, simply because Dominick beamed down at her as he twirled her across the polished wood; even though she abandoned Brooklyn; abandoned the apartment that housed Charlie's jazz record collection and his family pictures and his books about the afterlife, she dreamt each night of his father.
What did she dream? It didn't matter. What mattered was that he materialized – standing at the wheel of his motorboat, laughing through the white of his beard – and that Tia woke in a room where she knew no one, and it was dark, or else the sun was on the window, and she touched the man beside her, and he was soft and warm with life.
On the seventh day, he would vanish. The night before, they held hands in bed, half-watching The Godfather.
"I know I'm supposed to love this movie," Tia said.
"Everyone loves this movie."
"Yes! This is why I like you." Dominick squeezed her hand. They were drinking champagne. A half-filled crystal flute rested on each nightstand. Dominick lifted his and studied it, then took a swig. "Gotta love the bubbly."
"It's all sugar."
"I love sugar!"
"He dies in that garden," Tia said.
Tia opened her mouth and then closed it. She had almost quoted from Reach for Life, the book Charlie's father (and then Charlie's mother, and then Charlie, and then Tia) had read just after the diagnosis – a book that discouraged clichés about the certainty of death.
Fight it. If someone tells you that you're going to die, you tell your body no.
It wasn't that Tia believed wholeheartedly in the Reach for Life philosophy – she'd never believed wholeheartedly in any philosophy – but she was human. And American. She believed things when they served her.
Read the rest of this story at Five Chapters, www.fivechapters.com/2010/the-truth-about-life/
Diana Spechler is the author of the novels Who By Fire (Harper Perennial, 2008) and Skinny (Harper Perennial, 2011). She has written for the New York Times, GQ, O, The Oprah Magazine, CNN Living, Esquire, New York, Paris Review, Self, Details, the Wall Street Journal, Salon, Slate, Nerve, Southern Review, Glimmer Train Stories, and elsewhere. Her work has appeared in several anthologies, including the forthcoming Sex Matters: The Sexuality and Society Reader (W.W. Norton, 2013). She is also a six-time Moth StorySLAM winner and has been featured on NPR and on The Moth podcast. She completed an MFA degree at the University of Montana and has received support for her work from the Steinbeck Fellowship at San Jose State University, the Portsmouth Abbey School, the LABA Fellowship, and the Anderson Center at Tower View. She teaches writing in New York City and for Stanford University's Online Writer's Studio.
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