This Good Life
By G.J. Reynolds
I go to see my doctor and he tells me I am fine. He seems like a nice man, very calm. He tells me I am fine again, with the same smile. I imagine him taking classes one weekend a month to practice telling his patients everything is O.K., part of a "Projecting Confidence to Satisfy Patients and Avoid Litigation" program sponsored by his insurance company. It sounds about right. He has the shiny skin and neat eyebrows of someone who believes that such things really matter, even in his line of work. His line of work being oncology; my doctor is an oncologist. Which is a fancy name for doctors whose patients are mostly dying or wishing they were dead. He's seeing me today because I went to see my neurologist last week and my internist the week before that. They have all told me the same thing. I am fine.
I leave thinking that I don't feel better, but then I never felt bad to begin with. On the street I stop to look at myself in the window of a Quiznos. My hair is growing out, the scar will be covered completely soon. I touch my head, run my hand over the bristling scalp and it's like I'm watching someone else, an apparition imitating every move I make. I look at the face, the half-shadow, half-reflection of two eyes, long nose, slightly crooked mouth, and it is as if the features belong to someone else. Someone I might have seen once or twice but have never really known. I wonder what he's like, wonder about the sound of his voice, think to myself that at some point I should probably sidle over and think of something to say. I look at him and he shrugs. "I got nothing," he says. The face staring back doesn't even crack a smile.
The posters of sandwiches in the Quiznos look good, with cheese melted and browned a bit on the edges to emphasize their warmth. I wonder what they taste like, then realize everything seems familiar, like a place I know. I have eaten here before, many times. I'm not hungry now. I could eat anyway, but I decide not to. I have a wallet with money and credit cards and a driver's license with a picture of the guy from the window in my pocket—the guy from the window but with more hair, a little heavier, smiling a bit, but not too much. I remember and yet everything seems strange and new, like the memories I have now are someone else's, handed down or loaned out.
In my pocket is a business card, given to me by the internist two weeks ago. It is the for a psychiatrist. The color is slightly off, the lettering in Old English-style script. The words "antique" and "ivory" come to mind as if I should know these things. I figure if I should know them, then I must know them. But I can't get comfortable with this knowledge and so it resides somewhere, waiting to be made sense of, to be filed away, added to everything else that I know, or think I know.
I go to the building where I work and take the elevator up to the fifteenth floor. I notice that there isn't a thirteen and then for some reason remember that in many other countries they don't number the ground floor, which means in Europe my fifteenth floor office would actually be on the thirteenth floor. This holds no significance for me, and yet I think it anyway, dwell on it even, while listening to the whirs and shudders of the elevator as it moves through the shaft. It must be depressing to be an elevator, I think, and then I realize that someone else has already thought of this, and that that someone is me. I must have had that same thought at least once a week for nearly fifteen years and I wonder if it's only a coincidence that I work on the fifteenth floor and have been employed in the same firm for fifteen years? How many years would that be in France? Is it possible that years can be numbered differently?
"In some cultures you are one year old the moment you're born," a voice says. It is not my voice, not me talking inside my own head, not me speaking out loud. I'm almost sure of it.
I turn and there's a woman behind me, smiling. I wonder if she is real. She's sort of pretty in an unremarkable way, medium height, brown hair, smiling a little, but not too much. She has a familiar face; that is, the sort of face that looks familiar. I wonder if I might know her somehow. Then she sticks out her hand to shake. There's a bit of fear in her eyes and I know it right away. She is the kind of woman who would never approach a man. She's taken a risk and she doesn't like risks. She's introducing herself because she feels confident, and she feels confident because she caught me talking to myself. It is a recipe for disaster. I take her hand and hold it, warm in mine, soft. A strange sensation, like holding some small, furless mammal. I look at her hand and then at her face. She smiles the same tight-lipped smile.
"Pleased to meet you," I say.
"Charmed, I'm sure," she answers.
The elevator stops and the door opens. "This is my floor," I say.
"No, not really."
Her head is leaning to one side, just a little. I wonder if it's her normal posture or some sort affectation, a way to seem even more ironic.
"Call me," she says, handing me her card.
"Thanks." I get off the elevator and when the door closes I look at the card. It's gray with crimson lettering. The words "slate" and "merlot" come to mind. I put it in my pocket with the psychiatrist's card. I calculate the odds of my calling either of them at less the 40 percent, which I realize isn't all that unlikely. Not as unlikely as it seems. Sort of likely, I suppose. I realize then that I will end up calling both. There's no way out of it now.
At my office, no one notices me. Open floor plan. No cubes, no screens, no hiding from anyone else. Glass houses without the glass. Each work station an island, a little pod of productivity. Work, work, work. The faces bathed in the weird glow of office work, a crowd of disembodied heads floating above the LCD panels on their desks, as if they might secretly be part of some installation by a famous a artist. I would not be surprised to walk around and see that behind the panels they are all empty torsos, one long metallic tube where their waists should be, inserted in the bottom of their chairs. Head bobbing, fingers moving, everything below the ribcage removed as just so much superfluous meat. It all made perfect sense, a natural stage of human evolution.
My work station is empty, perfectly clean, my few possessions boxed and left under the desk. I am on medical leave. I can return whenever I want. All of my doctors say I am fine, everything is just great. Not really. Everything is wrong. The walls are the wrong shade, a slight ochre tint to the beige and that I can't recall. The carpet, which I always thought was gray, turns out to be a deep chocolate, woven with blue, gold, and red threads like a nice tweed, hardy and resistant to dirt and stains.
In the box I find what I want, the picture of my two sons. Seven and ten years-old, seated together in front of one of those anonymous backdrops. The picture was taken at Sears, digital, the kids smiling, happy. Everything about them was right. The picture was the only thing that didn't seem out of place. My kids looked like my kids. Then I notice the frame: brushed metal, the surface slightly dull. I hadn't noticed it before. I try to remember what I thought it was like, but I can't. I must have imagined it as wood, or shiny, or one of those goofy ceramic frames you get at Wal-Mart with flowers and balloons and "World's Best Dad" painted into the glaze. Suddenly none of it seems right. There is a gap in my oldest son's teeth that is out of place. The younger one has his hands clasped in his lap, a patient gesture so utterly unlike him. I realize that the more I look at the picture, the stranger they will become and the less grounded I will feel. I wedge the picture, still in its frame, in my jacket and look into the box one last time before closing it and pushing it under the desk again.
When I straighten up, everyone is looking at me. Work has stopped. Work, work, work has stopped. People are staring. I run my hand over the stubble on the my scalp and try to smile. "I must've been talking to myself again," I say in a rather loud voice. I wonder how long I've been doing that, and how it is that I could be thinking and talking simultaneously and not notice the echo of my own voice, the oddly syncopated rhythms of my thoughts whispering ahead of my words.
"Nothing to see here," I say. And then, "Merry Christmas to all." A couple of people I don't recognize smile and wave, another guy gives me the finger. Everyone goes back to work. I put my hand over my mouth to make sure I'm not talking out loud and head for the elevators.
I take the two business cards out and lay them on the table. I'm back at Quiznos because it seemed bright and warm and because I prefer not to be alone right now. My ex-wife has asked that I not see my kids anymore. Something about my behavior being erratic. Something about me telling them that sometimes death is not such a bad thing. "You frightened them," she said when I showed up at her house. "O.K.," I said. I didn't argue. There wasn't anything to argue about. Of course I frighten them.
My decision about which number to call is that I should call one of them and get it over with and that which one it is doesn't really matter much. A strange woman or a strange shrink, both have their downsides, both have a certain potential for reward, neither is likely to make to anything worse than it already is.
I look around for a pay phone and then remember that is is the 21st century and there aren't any pay phones anymore. Maybe in bus stations and other places where people too poor for cell phones go. Not in a Quiznos. No banks of phones at busy intersections, no phone booths where Superman can change and hookers keep warm. I am one of the last men of my age who has never owned a cell phone. I try to remember why. They give your brain cancer, I think. I cover my mouth to see if the words are coming out, look around. No one is watching. How stupid to think cell phones would give me brain cancer. I've already had brain cancer. I decide to get a cell phone. But first, I want something to eat.
I wind up calling the woman first and then the shrink, but the shrink has a cancellation so I get to see him first. The shrink's name is Scotford B. Maurice and I know before I even arrive at his office that he will either be totally gay or one of those manly, hunter guys who seems fine except for the whole overcompensating thing. He turns out to look just like Garrison Keillor, and I think that this is remarkable because it means I was right on both counts. I am not trying to be funny when I say that he is very serious, and probably even tells jokes with a stern face. I like him right off. He reminds me of my friend from high school who made a clay tablet for his honors class and inscribed in cuneiform a remnant of the Gilgamesh epic and at the bottom added a line that comprised the teacher's name and the symbols for sexual intercourse and head: the teacher is a fuckhead. I still think that's funny, even now, and looking at Dr. Maurice I can't help but smile.
"So what's the problem," he says, emphasizing the the and keeping the ending of the sentence flat so that it's more of a statement than a question.
I squirm a little in my seat. I don't like to think about my problem. I touch the side of my head, feel where the hair has grown out enough that the stubble is turning soft. Another week and it will start to lay down a little and the week after that it will look like normal hair. Another week and I'll be combing it. I think to myself that I rather like not having to comb my hair and resolve to buy one of those vacuum attachments before it becomes a problem.
"I seem to notice things now," I say. "Things I never noticed before."
"What kinds of things?" This time it's really a question. I think he might be the least bit interested.
"Things, you know..."
"The kinds of things most people don't care about."
"Give me some examples."
I tell him about Quiznos and my kid's teeth and the carpet at work, and how if I really think about my surgery, my head begins to itch, but not on the outside. I mention that his office smells of dry-cleaning fluid and that on the way over I saw a pair of mourning doves on a wire both shit at the same time and then fly away together. I say that the music of Philip Glass is now suddenly interesting to me, while the artworks of Robert Rauschenberg are not. Hemingway is a better writer than I had previously thought, while Tolstoy is worse. I watch cartoons, can't be bothered with newspapers, and find the smell of coffee grounds mildly erotic.
"Ashtrays remind me of dead bodies; I bought a cell phone but am afraid to use it," I finish.
"Sounds about right to me," he says.
"I don't feel any better," I tell him.
"Well, that's because it all takes time. Really, you've been given a gift. This surgery, it's made everything new to you. Cognitively speaking it's like part of your brain remembers things and part of it is seeing the world for the first time. It's a second chance, don't you see? A whole new set of possibilities. You can drink the same wine you've had many times before and suddenly it's new and alive and filled with possibilities. Your problem isn't that anything has changed but that you've been given the chance to live again."
"So that's it."
"Yes, that's it."
The woman is a different story. Her name is Madeleine like in the children's stories and she asks me to meet her at an avant-garde restaurant called colon but on the sign outside it only says ":" just like that, in quotes and everything. There's something interesting about naming a restaurant with a punctuation mark that has the same name as the majority of the digestive tract, and while I'm waiting for Maddy I find myself imagining all the ways that a ":" (I still think of it in quotation marks) is like the human colon and so on until when she finally arrives it's like I'm seeing her for the first time. I realize that I've only seen her once, in an elevator, and that the chameleon nature of women, who can appear one way in the daytime, another at night, and how this can vary even more depending on whether they are involved in work or pleasure or lying around on the sofa one Sunday morning.
"You look lovely," I say, "brand new."
"What a coincidence," she tells me, "I just this morning traded in my old me for a new one. Do you like it?"
For our first course we order the artichoke gratin and are brought a plate with one artichoke heart sprinkled with crumbs and heated under a broiler. The server squirts a balsamic emulsion on the plate that looks like bubbly motor oil.
"Wow, this is incredible," Maddy says.
"Yes," I say. "Incredible."
"If I owned a hotdog cart, I'd set up outside every night."
"You'd make a fortune." I watch as she cuts her artichoke into quarters and then pushes a bit of it on her fork and slips it into her mouth.
"It's actually kind of good," she says.
"I'm sure it is," I say. I pick up the whole thing with my fingers and pop it into my mouth. I don't need to chew, just smoosh it around with my tongue until it dissolves.
"It tastes just like it looks," I say. "I've never eaten anything that tastes just like it looks."
"Then that's a good thing," she says.
"Disappointing, actually. Nothing should taste just like it looks. There should always be something more."
"You feel cheated when there isn't."
"Only a bit, yes."
The second course isn't really a course either. Another nearly empty plate. This one with a seared scallop, black pepper, little curlicues of leak, and something that looks like movie-theater butter smeared on the plate.
"This is awful," she says.
"There's a brilliance to it," I say. "The chef has a real genius. I'm sure he could make any food horrid."
"Let's go to the bathroom and then we'll just leave. No one should put out good money for rubbish like this."
"I didn't say it was rubbish."
"If you're not happy, it's always rubbish. Junk. Crapola."
Maddy excuses herself and then a minute later I get up and go too. She's nowhere to be seen, so I duck into the men's room to look at myself in the mirror. I see the crow's feet, the dry, grayish hazel eyes, the receding hairline. I don't know what I'm looking at. Myself, yes. But looking for the strangeness I suppose. I purse my lips. They're thinning with middle age. I realize that I am starting to look more like my father. When I was younger everyone said I took after my mother. That was a compliment, I guess. Girls said it sometimes. They liked my looks. I turn on the faucet and behind me one of the stall doors opens and Maddy comes out. She grabs my hand and pulls me in.
"This is different," I say.
She kisses me then lays her ear against my chest. "Me too," she says. "It's funny what you can hear. Not just the hear and breathing, but the whole thing. All the background noise of a person's body. The stuff you never notice. The hum of just being alive."
The bathroom door opens and Maddy pushes away from me, stepping up, onto the commode. I hold her arms, trying not to giggle while some guy pisses a little and then leaves without washing his hands.
"That's disgusting," Maddy says.
"It's the norm."
"I read there was a study that says some people's cell phones are dirtier than toilets."
"Toilets in general, I suppose."
"That's about right then. I'm sure people with disgusting cell phones have disgusting toilets, in which case the study would be all wrong," I say.
We walk past the dining room. I see that our table has been cleared. It's as if we were never there.
On the street Maddy says goodnight. I tell her I'll call her. She smiles and waves. "You're lying," she says. I wave. She gets into a waiting taxi. I wonder if she's right, if I really won't call her. I resolve to call her, then realize that I won't. By saying it out loud, Maddy has jinxed us. She has made our relationship impossible. We might see each other again sometime, but we it will only be as friends, acquaintances from a long time ago. I take her card from my pocket and let it drop on the sidewalk. I take Dr. Maurice's card out of my pocket and tear it in half, then again, letting the pieces scatter as I walk away.
Everything about the house seems new to me. The coarse brick, the way the angle from the street makes the eaves of the porch and the roof taper back, trapezoidal and parallel like in Chinese houses. Pagodas, that's it. Then I wonder if that's not Japanese. Then I wonder why it matters. After that I decide that it's not oriental at all, and from there try to remember what was the point in the first place. I look up again and it starts again. I tilt my head and think of German houses, the East German apartment blocks we saw on a tour once in mid-90s, remnants of the old wall in the background, these square, industrial buildings meant to house workers in identical habitats. I look at the row of houses and see that everyone is the same plan, everyone has the same attic dormers, the same square porch, the same basic footprint. Some will be reversed, for variety, or because the plumbing or electrical connections demand it. Most are brick, a few sided. The whole street the same, house after house, onto the next block, and the next.
None of this is right. It's just a house. A house like a lot of other houses, unique and the same. With its certain odors and temperamental thermostat. It's one creaky floorboard where the living room meets the hallway, and the musty smell of the old stonework basement that oozes from the vents whenever the heat isn't running. It's normal house items, a loose rug in the foyer, family pictures on the living room wall, a stray child's toy or opened magazine left on one of the bottom steps to remind someone to bring it up with them when they turn in for bed or go up for a quick change or shirt or socks, or to put on a nice sweater for keeping warm on a cool evening.
It is not winter, it is not Christmastime; otherwise I wouldn't be here, standing on the street in nothing but a light jacket, watching for movement from room to room, following the flickering pattern of the television glow on the inside of the drapes as if it were the unraveling code of human existence. I find myself thinking about life after death, parallel worlds, the idea that gravity comes from somewhere else, the residual energy of a sister-universe, leaking into our own. Perhaps we all exist in other dimensions, in forms we don't know about, residual like gravity, going on forever, life after death.
The light is on in the kids' room. The blind shifts, slats rotating. I can see the brightness emerge, the silhouette of my oldest son coming appearing as if on cue. I can see him, see his face, his eyes, the slats rotating. He's turning up the blind to keep the light out, so that the morning sun doesn't leak through onto his bed. He's like his mother that way. Tomorrow is not a school day. He's planning to sleep in. Ten years old, he's looking forward to a day off.
I watch him slowly fade out, the blind closing him off from view. The light behind him, I know he hasn't seen me. Doesn't know I'm out here. I am fine, I tell myself, the doctors all say so. Everything is all right. Couldn't be better.QLRS Vol. 7 No. 2 Apr 2008