The Truth About Life

By Diana Spechler

“Someday soon,
he says, I’ll go to sleep and not wake up.
You tell him no. You’re talking to yourself.”
–Richard Hugo

The sensation Tia experiences after crossing all those time zones, taking all those desultory naps, eating all those meals punctuated by all those unsweetened desserts, wiping her hands with all those hot washcloths offered to her from a basket, is less like jet lag than like a fever.

Is it possible to make herself attractive after fourteen hours on an airplane? No. But of course, 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. Of course she swipes gloss on her lips and tries not to see her under-eye shadows. She stares in the mirror. She looks like death. She splashes water on her sallow 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 Blackberry.

Tia’s own cell phone (not a Blackberry) was stuffed 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.”

When Tia imagined the hospice nurses, she saw Amish women. She wasn’t sure why she’d conjured the image, but she liked the sense of peace it brought her: 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. “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.”

Part Two

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 and blithe. Her eyeliner was smudged, but her eyes looked lit up. She thought of Dominick and practiced a sexy smile.

“But when I let go,” Charlie said, “he just stopped and held the toothbrush there. His body is shutting down… It really goes to show the truth about life. You’ve got no one but yourself.”

“I don’t?”

“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 grown around her body. Sometimes when he cried (especially when he waxed poetic with hackneyed poetry), 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.”

“So?”

“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.

Part Three

Even though Tia more or less moved into Dominick’s hotel room, 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 motor boat, 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 soothingly 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.”

“Except me.”

“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.

“Everyone dies.”

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 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.

“Japan has the world’s highest life expectancy,” Dominick said. “Land of the rising sun.”

“So where does it set?”

“Where does what set?”

“Well… which country has the lowest life expectancy?”

Dominick tugged her ponytail. “You’re too young to be so morose.”

Tia rested her head on Dominick’s shoulder.

Dominick set his glass down. “I should tell you something, Tia.”

“Okay.”

“I’ve never been in love.”

“You’re thirty-seven years old.”

“Well.”

“Soon you’ll be forty.”

“I just thought you should know. Anyway, if I ever do fall in love, I’m sure it won’t happen in Japan. I’m not into Asian chicks. You know those guys who are into Asian chicks?”

“I thought that was all guys.”

“But there’s a type of guy that only likes Asian chicks.”

“Oh.”

“See?” Dominick said. “You and I are birds of a feather. I’m not into Asian chicks. You’re not into The Godfather.” He scooted closer to Tia and kissed the top of her head. “Come back to Tokyo with me.”

Tia laughed. “Your flight leaves in nine hours.”

“You’ll meet me next weekend. I’ll buy your ticket right now.”

“I can’t just–”

“Don’t say no. I’ll pay for everything! I’ll take time off. We’ll travel around. I’ll take you to the sea.”

Tia thought of her job before she thought of Charlie. Of course, it was all braided together — the nonprofit, Charlie, the people they knew. Every morning, they rode the L train in, and then walked together to the office where they’d met when they were three years younger. So of course, she wouldn’t have been able to tell their boss the easiest lie — that Charlie needed her, that she was taking time off to go to Michigan.

“Don’t you have vacation days?”

Tia nodded. She’d been saving them in anticipation of the funeral. And also because she’d never been able to afford a worthwhile vacation. She thought again of commuting with Charlie, of how they read books now instead of talking, of how, inside the not talking, she felt that she understood death. She remembered hearing Charlie’s father’s prognosis, and then locking herself in the bathroom to cry — not because the cancer was terminal, but because she’d been planning to leave.

Dominick finished his champagne. “Live a little, woman!”

Tia brought his fingers to her lips. She wanted to see Japanese cherry blossoms, blooming and blushing. She remembered Charlie’s father on the boat last summer, saying, “Maybe a fellow could get used to death.” At the time, he still believed in Reach for Life, still joked about death as if it didn’t concern him, still thought doctors were just pessimists with stethoscopes. “I’m a creature of habit, and death is the ultimate routine.” Then he’d stage-whispered to Tia so Charlie’s mother could hear, “Maybe it’s a little like marriage.”

Part Four

In Tokyo, Dominick’s apartment building has art in the lobby — abstract oil paintings in shades of blue, expensive-looking porcelain vases, a shelf of antique books in a range of languages. There are doormen. There is a talking elevator that speaks Japanese and English. There are Europeans everywhere.

“Welcome to the youth hostel,” Dominick says when he meets Tia in his hallway. “Show me a country that’s not represented in this building.” He hugs her. He’s wearing a cable-knit sweater she hasn’t seen and stretched-out socks with no shoes. “Except Japan. No one here is Japanese, unless you count the workers.”

“You don’t count the workers?” Tia winces as soon as the words leave her mouth.

“Do you feel like you’re dreaming?” Dominick asks, pulling away from her, taking her suitcase, wheeling it into the apartment. “Transcontinental jet lag makes me feel like I’m dreaming.”

“Yes,” Tia says, trailing behind him. “It is sort of like dreaming.”

“The driver found you? Let me guess. He spoke zero English.”

“Zero.”

“Yup. That’s Japan. Well. At least he got you here.”

“He did,” Tia says. She is overcome by the sense that she will never say anything interesting ever again.

Dominick’s apartment is an immaculate and large two-bedroom with a full-sized living room, a kitchen, hardwood floors, and a toilet from the future. “Check out my view,” he says, holding out his arm to the large window in his bedroom.

Tia looks. Across the street, a Starbucks winks. It is early evening. The weather is gray. “Is it going to rain?”

“Not necessarily.” He grins and pushes his fingers through his hair. “Have a little faith.”

Tia takes his hand. “You’re so glass-half-full,” she says. It comes out sounding judgmental, though she meant to be flirtatious.

Dominick squints at the window, then pulls his hand away to draw his sleeves up to his elbows. “We’re alive,” he says to the ghosts of their reflections. “What could be better than that?”

*   *   *

They have dinner at a restaurant that Dominick declares authentic. It is clean and wooden and spare. On the walls hang intricate silk scrolls depicting birds on bamboo branches and fish struggling against heavy currents. They remove their shoes and sit at a low table on gold and red cushions. The menu is written in Japanese. A waitress wearing a kimono and slippers brings them each a cup of sake that has overflowed into a saucer. Tia lifts her cup and drinks half of it.

“Careful, cowgirl,” Dominick says. “Jetlag’s like a roofie.”

Tia agrees, if by “roofie” he means “influence responsible for shitty manners.” While Dominick orders in Japanese, Tia kills the second half of her sake and then slurps the pool of it from the saucer.

Dominick looks at her as if she’s licking ketchup from a plate. “I think those are dirty,” he says. “I don’t think those saucers get washed.”

Tia shrugs. “Lots of things are dirty,” she says, even though she hates when people make that argument, hates when people cry, “Five-second rule!” before diving to the floor for a fallen muffin. “The subway is dirty,” she tells Dominick. “And public bathrooms. Money. You can’t live your life worrying about germs. Life is short.”

Did she really say that? Did she really tell Dominick that life is short, as if she invented the maxim herself?

Dominick checks his watch. It is thick and silver and virile. Tia wishes they could go back to his apartment right now and have sex. It’s not that she feels aroused; rather, she wishes to distract him from her inexplicable loss of social graces. She reaches across the table to hold his hand — or, more accurately, to cover his fist with her palm — and smiles at the waitress when she shuffles over with more sake, and again when she appears with small crackle-glazed plates of unfamiliar food — slimy, brown pieces of something arranged like a pinwheel; transparent slices of fish; a cube of meat floating in a bowl of dark liquid.

Tia decides not to ask what anything is. She will be an adventurous traveler. That’s the way to live! She starts in on her third cup of sake, drunk and fuzzily aware of Dominick retreating from her. “Looks delicious,” she says, gesturing at the food with her chopsticks. She was hoping to sound cheery, but her voice is too loud, and her words run together like watercolor. She lifts a cube of beef with her chopsticks and promptly drops it on her lap. In Japan, Tia realizes, there are no napkins — just hot towels before each meal. In Japan, people aren’t messy. People are perfect. People are trained from childhood never to spill, never to drop things, never to look where they shouldn’t be looking.

“So,” Dominick says, clearing his throat. He touches the points of his chopsticks to his plate, making them line up before dipping them into a bowl and extracting a chunk of meat. “I know I told you I’d be able to take time off…” He transfers the meat smoothly from his chopsticks to his mouth. “But it’s actually impossible.” He concentrates on chewing for a minute, and nods thoughtfully, as if this is what’s important — chewing. When he swallows, he says, “This weekend hopefully. But tomorrow … the next few days … I’ll give you a map and a guidebook. I’ve got some great guidebooks. And you can check out Tokyo.”

Tia swallows something. She can’t remember what she put in her mouth, but she didn’t chew it enough and it lodges in her throat like a sob. She drinks her sake as if it’s water and stares at Dominick’s shoulders. How broad they are. How perfect his haircut is, as if he took classes at Yale on how to put his manliest foot forward. “By myself?” Tia’s voice wobbles around the food obstruction.

“Sure,” Dominick says. “Why not? You’re an independent woman!” He smiles at his chopsticks when he says it, and then sets them down and uses his fingers to draw back one side of his mouth and pick something out of his strapping, square teeth.

“So I’ll just…?”

“The trains here are like the subway. Look, a city’s a city. It’ll be easy.”

Tia hiccups. She is suddenly so tired, she feels sheathed in plaster. She tries to calculate what time it is in Michigan, but she can’t manage the math.

“And then I’ll come home every night and we’ll go out for great dinners.”

“Oh,” Tia says, finishing another cup of sake, looking longingly at the full saucer.

What are they talking about? She’s having trouble keeping track. Why are they eating dinner and discussing future dinners? What is she doing here, in this strange country with this strange man, who has never loved anyone; who moved to Asia, mid-thirties and single, to repudiate a whole continent of women?

*   *   *

The sex that night is like sex from a manual. It wears hospital scrubs. It carries a no-nonsense briefcase. Tia imagines them on a workbench, in a garage filled with practical tools. When they’re through, she is sober and irrationally awake.

“What’s wrong?” she asks in the darkness. She feels responsible for the mediocrity, as if she brought it here from her apartment. After all, she supplied the condoms, flew them across the world in her suitcase. (“The condoms in Japan are dollhouse condoms,” Dominick told her in an email a few days ago.)

“What’s wrong?” she asks again after a stretch of silence.

“I don’t know.” He’s tying a great American condom into a knot, looking like a sad balloon-animal-maker. “Nothing.”

“Are you annoyed that I got too drunk at the authentic Japanese restaurant?”

Dominick coughs. “Of course not,” he says. “I have to sleep. I have to get up so early.”

“Do you wish I didn’t come here?”

“I don’t wish that, Tia.” He pats her arm, then rolls across the sea of his king-sized bed.

Tia waits. Maybe he’s bluffing. But no. His breathing evens out and deepens. And then there is nothing for her to do but listen to the rhythm of it.

The jetlag feels like retribution — fingers holding her eyelids open while someone flicks her eyeballs. Tia lies there for hours on her back until the blackest part of night is drained of its pigment. She wonders if it’s reasonable to feel homesick on an all-expenses-paid vacation to Japan. She wonders if she should call the American Embassy while Dominick is at work, if she should find her way back to the airport and make him come home at the end of the day to an empty apartment. She pictures him finding the hangers in his closet, bare and swinging. She wishes she’d hung her clothes on his hangers.

Part Five

The Starbucks across the street is the cleanest coffee shop Tia has ever seen. At the counter, she points to a sweet pastry behind the glass — a small croissant glazed with what appears to be honey. She is groggy and can’t stop yawning. She doesn’t remember growing tired enough to sleep, but when she woke abruptly, the day was glaring and sunny, and she was alone in Dominick’s bed.

She finds a table and opens her guidebook.

She imagines telling this story at a cocktail party some day. “I met this guy. He flew me to Japan and lost interest in me the second I got there.” She imagines herself tittering quietly and sipping her cosmopolitan. She imagines herself as a person who titters, who orders cosmopolitans, who goes to cocktail parties with guests who are dying to hear her stories. She imagines herself as a person who doesn’t have to keep her best stories secret. She takes a bite of her pastry. It is only semi-sweet. She pushes it away, suddenly ashamed to be in a chain coffee shop that boasts eleven thousand stores in America. The important thing today, she reminds herself, is to enjoy her travels, to really milk this tremendous life experience, to quote the lucky kids she knew in college — the ones who strapped backpacks to their well cared-for bodies, who talked about how cheap the Eurorail was, who were programmed to warn, “If you don’t do it when you’re young…” as if they knew what it would be like to be anything but young.

*   *   *

In a sense, Dominick was right: A city is a city. The trains, with the help of the guidebook, are manageable. The flow of foot traffic is clipped and deliberate. The impatience is palpable. But there is a darkness to things, a shadow at a picnic. The women wear miniskirts with leg warmers pulled just over their knees, suggestive despite the blank easels of their eyes.

In Shibuya, which the guidebook deems “a fashion center,” Tia wanders into a bustling bakery where the cashiers work in red aprons with matching scarves tied over their hair. The customers hold trays and tongs, plucking pastries from great pastry piles. Tia breathes in and her mouth waters. She buys a pastry covered in powdered sugar and steps back into the street. Above her, a large digital clock flashes the local time in orange.

In Michigan, it is midnight. Charlie sleeps beside his father, hemmed in by metal rails. Or else he sleeps in his childhood bed, a Hospice nurse in the crook of his arm. They wake simultaneously and reach for each other, their skin the exact same temperature. Charlie kisses her collarbone. Her hair is caught up in a wispy bun. Her bonnet rests on the windowsill, tissue-papery in the glow of a moon.

Tia stands at the busiest intersection in the world. Just wait, the guidebook tells her. When the light turns, the people will fill the street. You will never see such a filling-up. Tia sucks in her breath, thinking of the tramplings at those religious pilgrimages as streams of poor people race toward God. For a moment, she longs to get trampled, flattened like a gingerbread man. A wind comes and blows her hair back. She lifts her face to it, waiting.

When the light turns, some people cross from each of the four corners. There are not that many people, really. Tia has seen more. In Times Square in the summer. On St. Mark’s Place on a Friday night. It is a watered-down crossing. A mini Mardi Gras. She looks up and sees a Starbucks. She unwraps her pastry and bites into it. The sugar, it turns out, is not really sugar, and her teeth close over a prune pit.

*   *   *

It’s late when she gets back to Dominick’s place. He is standing in the center of the living room, modeling a dark suit for a Japanese man with gray hair. “Hey! Thought you flew home or something!” he says to Tia. He grins as if it’s a stage direction.

The man says something in Japanese and Dominick lifts his arms and stands crucifixed in place.

“Nope. Still here,” Tia says, sinking onto the couch, which looked comfortable, but turns out to be as angular and hard as a coffin. She doesn’t want to tell Dominick the truth—that she got lost in the dumbest possible way, realizing a few hours after leaving the apartment that she never wrote down his address. To make matters worse, she quickly realized that Tokyo has no street signs. She stood on sidewalks and could have been anywhere. After a long afternoon and evening of playing frenzied language-barrier charades with pedestrians and cab drivers, she found her way back by magic.

The man feels the material under Dominick’s armpits, and then runs his palms over Dominick’s outstretched arms, shoulders to wrists. Dominick turns around and the man grabs the sides of the jacket and yanks down, chattering in Japanese, pointing to places on Dominick’s hips.

Tia feels a strong yearning to be the person trying on clothes, the person being touched. She would even like to be searched with a metal detector wand at airport security, or to get a lice check in the nurse’s office at her old elementary school. She wants to close her eyes and rest her weight on a person.

Dominick finally faces her. “So what’s the verdict?”

For a second, Tia doesn’t know what he means. She is suddenly quite sure that Charlie’s father is dead. She thinks of his white beard, of how thin his legs looked last summer as he stood at the helm. She remembers what he said the last time she saw him: “I like what you do for my son.”

“Well?” Dominick turns up his palms. In the dim light, his irises, which are normally gray, look as black as his pupils.

The tailor stands beside him. They are smiling at Tia, waiting. She leans forward and rests her elbows on her knees, as if to get a better look. She is so exhausted, the suit makes no impression on her. He could get married in it, or buried in it. He could go hang-gliding in it. He could mud-wrestle. Tia can’t imagine what it would feel like to have an opinion on a suit, but she parts her lips and inhales, like a person with the answer.