In This Life

It begins with a dizzy spell over coffee at Starbucks, of all places. You are getting up to go to the bathroom when the room begins to spin, and you wake up on your back, on the cold tiles, a young man with a nose ring and a strand of green hair hanging from his cap hovering over you. Around you, the murmur of strangers who look away when your eyes open. Willie Nelson is singing from a speaker in the corner.

When did Starbucks start playing Willie Nelson? you ask.  

When it happens again two days later, you go to the doctor—the Albanian doctor who everyone says is the best. He is a good doctor, even though he walks like a duck and calls you young lady (you are 38). But because he is a good doctor, you have to wait ninety minutes to see him, and you will want these minutes back. You spend them studying the paintings on the wall, which you think are quite good, even though they don’t look like anything. The longer you look, the more the quality of their je ne sais quoi seeps into your being, and you become convinced that this funny little foreign doctor holds some important secret about life.

The doctor asks you questions about your diet and your family and your sex life, then he orders a series of tests. When you ask him about the paintings, he laughs. My wife picks them out, he says. 

A week later the doctor shakes his head and tells you that you have six months to live. At most. There is nothing that can be done to change this. He puts his hand on your shoulder, says, Go live your life, young lady.

At home, you tell your husband not to worry, that you will cook dinner tonight. You used to do this a lot when you were both younger and you were the better cook. You serve braised lamb shanks, flageolet beans, diced potatoes and carrots. It doesn’t taste as good as you remember, but perhaps your cooking skills are rusty, or your taste buds are deteriorating. You eat and eat and eat, but are not satisfied. Something is not right.

Your husband looks up and smiles, the fork paused in front of his mouth. He is wearing the diamond cufflinks that you got him for his birthday, even though tonight it’s just the two of you.     

Isn’t this nice, he says.

I think I’m gonna be sick, you say, pushing back from the table. 

At night, you lay in the hammock in the yard with a glass of wine, listening to the water from the little fountain in your garden and staring up at the stars. You think of all the things you ever dreamed you would become. The first thing was a paleontologist. You had a big book about dinosaurs as a child, and you flipped through it, memorizing all of the species. When you were older and discovered museums, you imagined being a painter. You learned to draw cubes and spheres, then dogs and horses. Ears, noses. You practiced looking at things. How many colors could you name? Where was the light coming from? You wanted to be an architect, an actress, a research chemist. But in this life, you became a trader of currencies. You get paid a lot of money by people with even more money to buy and sell money from other countries. How did this happen?

Your husband finds you puzzling over this.  He places a familiar hand on your shoulder.

You love your husband, but are not sure you are in love with him. This is not the marriage you imagined.

I’m thinking of buying a new car, you say. And as soon as you say it, you realize it is true. You don’t know where you need to go, but you will need to get there fast. The next day you test drive a Cadillac CTS, an Audi R8, a Porsche 911, but they don’t make you feel any more alive. Then you see an old Camaro in a used lot, a fiery orange 68 SS with a motor that sounds like it wants to eat the world, and you know this is the car you want. You pay too much for it and drive away too fast. You decide you will tell no one you are dying.

There is no time to lose. You must do something, but you’re not sure what. For weeks you drive around in your new old Camaro, eating alone at the best restaurants, drinking martinis in the middle of the day, forgetting where you are going, flirting shamelessly with terrible men. You call old friends and lovers just to say hi. Your husband eyes you curiously when you drag him out dancing. Are you seeing someone else? he asks when you twirl around, laughing high and bright and clear, your voice pure as water. 

One night you have an urge to see the ocean. You pack a bag and tell your husband there’s an emergency at the office—the Yen is on the fritz—and you head down a two-lane highway. You roll down the window and mash the accelerator. Something about the trees whizzing by, the night air thundering in your ear, the lights of little houses winking in the distance puts you in a trance. You don’t know what you will do when you get to the ocean—park, feed the seagulls, run naked on the beach—it doesn’t seem to matter. The ocean is two days away, and you have plenty of time to think. You drive with your right hand, because the left one doesn’t seem to work so well lately. Your fingers don’t close when you want them to. 

When you get back, you imagine you will set things up for your husband, organize your possessions, print your life insurance policy and leave it in a prominent place, find him a lover so that he will have someone to hold onto when you are gone. You will not burden your friends with your sad fortune, but when the time comes, you will slip quietly away into the night down some old highway like this one.

You are lost in this reverie when the blue lights appear behind you. You are doing 130 in a 55. The police officer cuffs you and shoves you into the back of the squad car.

But I’m dying, you say.

It’s not you I’m worried about, the officer says.

Your first time in a holding cell: fluorescent lights, a plastic window, the smell of old piss.  You'd hoped there would be bars to hang onto, to lean against.  Still, you have a mild feeling of accomplishment: you could have died having never been arrested. You cling to this thought as boredom settles in and you stare at the wall, waiting for your husband to come bail you out. When he does, you are so happy to see him, and so sad also, that you tell him everything, even the stuff about wanting to have lived a different life. He cries, puts your hand on his cheek, and says, Oh, baby. And then you think, maybe you are still in love with him. Then you get dizzy again and fall down in the parking lot.

You are back home now, and your husband has taken to hiding the car keys, because in your condition you really shouldn’t be driving. He tells your friends and coworkers, and suddenly everyone agrees that you are a great woman and don’t deserve this. The owner of your company gives you a generous severance package; it turns out you were well-liked at work after all. Friends call on you with gifts, and it is so good to see them that you begin to feel sorry to leave them. But the smell of flowers pisses you off, so at night you gently open the sliding patio door, tiptoe barefoot across the back yard, and burn them under the oak tree. Afterwards, you stand for several minutes on your lawn. The bottoms of your feet are damp with dew, your fingers sooty, your arms bathed blue in moonlight. Life is so unfair, everyone tells you, and you think, No, death is unfair. This isn’t the death I wanted.

Everyone prays for you, even though you are not sure you believe in God. Your mother, your sister, your coworkers are all praying, and even your husband comes and prays at your bedside. You too? you say, even though you are touched and all you want to do is grab him in your arms as tight as you can.

But then something funny happens. Nothing happens at all. You don’t die. The dizzy spells just stop. Your fingers do what you want them to. You go back to the doctor for more tests. You are cautious, then hopeful, then joyous, because the doctor confirms that you are ok, that you can keep on living your wonderful life. 

You tell your husband, you tell your friends, you tell your former coworkers—it’s great news, everyone agrees, but the way they say it suggests that they are angry, that you have somehow lied to them. Somehow, you have become a fraud.

And yes, yes, they would love to have a celebratory drink with you, but they are so busy, what with the world economy the way it is, that a drink right now isn’t exactly possible, but they will definitely have to get together with you sometime in the future, once things aren’t so hectic, and then, then you will have a party.

And your husband, it turns out, already has another lover. He explains how much you mean to him, how much he wants you to be happy but how impossible that would be with him, as you yourself said when he picked you up from jail that one night so many months ago. His eyes are filled with a terrible earnestness.

And so you lie in your hammock, wondering what it is you are supposed to do with all this time. You decide, at last, to go see the doctor again. Again, you sit in the waiting room, staring at his paintings for an hour and a half, the splotches of color that still somehow fill you with dread. Finally, the nurse leads you back, and the doctor shakes your hand. 

A visit from our miracle, he says.

I thought I was dying, you say.

The doctor shakes his head, shrugs. You still are, just at the normal speed. You will grow old like the rest of us, he says, and smiles.

You walk outside. You squint into the harsh sunlight. The afternoon arrays itself empty and naked before you like some hopeless lover. Time is an ocean, and you are drowning.

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