The Life Dialogue
Life and I went out for coffee on a Wednesday afternoon. I hate coffee, so I ordered lemonade. Life dangled between green tea and Perrier before finally deciding on the latter. “What I’m really craving is a Jack Daniel’s on the rocks,” he said. Unfortunately, I’m underage, and he wasn’t carrying a valid ID, so I paid to make up for it.
We took our drinks outside to a café table, one of those tiny cast-iron affairs with white paint chipping off it, more artsy than practical. The table rocked toward Life as I watched him fill about half his glass. “So you called me. Here I am. What’s up?”
“Who’s the guy on your answering machine?”
“Friend of mine. Lives in the Theta-Delt house. Sings bass for the chamber chorale. I found him after the spring concert and told him, ‘You have the perfect voice for my answering machine.’ To scare off the stalkers, you know.”
“Oh.” He took a drink and looked up again. “But your outgoing message is still boring. You need something more exciting, more . . . fascinating. ‘Please leave your name, telephone number, and a brief message’ just doesn’t cut it. Have you thought about doing a rap routine? Now that would be novel.”
“Until someone calls me about a real job. Anyway, we’re meeting over drinks to talk about my answering machine?”
“I came to see how you were.”
“I’m fine. Tell me what we’re really talking about.”
“No, like what’s going on in your life.”
“Nothing. Wasting time, failing organic chemistry, despairing over the analysis of Ernest Hemingway in terms of Virginia Woolf, wasting time, living off my parents, gaining weight, not writing, wasting time.”
“You said you were fine.”
“So I am. I go to a university I can fail at, I have parents I can live off, I’m not anorexic, and I’ve got friends like you to complain to.”
“Sometimes I don’t know about you. Is the glass half-empty or half-full?”
“Yours is empty.” I poured the rest of the bottle into his glass.
“And what’s on your mind?”
“My mind is wondering why you love to come here so much.”
“There’s just something so romantic about it. Sipping hot chocolate . . . throwing sophisticated glances at people as they pass . . . watching them pretend to be intellectual . . . soaking in the natural environment of the true-blue starving artist . . . . You know, they write operas about this stuff. Just think of it: Enter Poet #1, café door left, cappuccino and Corelli in the air . . . .” I blushed and sat back down.
“All right, ‘fess up. How many times have you rehearsed that speech?”
“Not all of us have spontaneous style.” I twisted a wisp of hair around my index finger. “Sometimes I come here just to listen to this,” waving at Chopin flowing out of the corner loudspeaker.
“Well, I knew it couldn’t be for the coffee,” he said into the glass.
I ignored him. “I go to the fast food place down the street, too, to hear Alanis Morissette.”
“Won’t you ever buy a CD?”
“As soon as I get published.”
He raised his glass. “Well, here’s to it.”
“Do non-alcoholic toasts count?”
“I don’t know, but we both know I don’t need another excuse to drink.”
“Mm.” I swirled my lemonade with a coffee swizzle stick as the silence settled. Life was toying with the bottle. “Listen . . . I know I’m not your mother, but you should really kick the alcohol habit.”
“What do you suggest? Thoreau?”
I dropped it. “That bad?”
“I—I’m sorry.” He looked down.
“But tell me you don’t read Thoreau.”
“I don’t read Thoreau. And I swore off vodka.”
“You rock my world. Now tell me what’s wrong.”
His turn to ignore me. “The way you talk sometimes, I don’t know how you live without alcohol. What do you do for depression?”
“I watch Zoloft commercials. Seeing that happy face bounce to the clarinet music is almost as good as taking the stuff.”
“Grey humor won’t get you out of everything. I know what you really do when you’re depressed.”
I do a lot of things when I’m depressed. “And what would that be?” I said carefully.
“You read Keats.”
“What about it? Would you suggest Danielle Steele? Besides, I’m not clinically depressed, so I can’t take anything. All right, enough about me. Let’s talk about you for awhile.”
He stared morosely into his glass and sighed. “I saw her.”
“A few months ago, at a hospital in Maine. I don’t remember what I was doing there . . . . “
“How is she?”
“Still a workaholic. And still looks like a supermodel—long, flaxen hair, willow-grey eyes. She’s thin, really thin now. I thought of Karen Carpenter . . . . Anyway, what was it? Room #213 or something. A girl, maybe 10, 11, lying in the bed, covered in third-degree burns.”
“Yeah, I won’t go into detail ‘cause I know you hate that. I said something unprintable, and that’s when I saw her.”
“She was standing on the other side of the bed, the left side, I guess it was, across from me. I couldn’t say anything. Her voice came out like dry icicles: ‘Melinda Porter, birthdate May 31, 1990. Peels lead paint off the walls for dinner. Mother has a big-screen television set in her room and weighs 268.5 pounds. Father tells little Mina he loves her when he feels like it and beats her with a rolling pin when he doesn’t. 4:37 AM Mommy nods off while smoking a cigarette; her flesh and blood pays the price.’
“I didn’t have any real hope, but I couldn’t stop myself. I said,
‘You can’t take her. They can save her.’” He was tapping the rim of the glass. “She just stared at me. She just stared at me as the heart monitor went flat.
“She looked at me the same way decades ago, the day she stopped talking to me. She spat those last words in my face.
‘You think you’re so righteous,’ she said. ‘You think you’re so righteous because you go around saving the world. But you just won’t grow up. You’re just keeping them alive and letting them suffer to stuff your petty, narcissistic little ego.’
“I looked down at the girl, and when I looked up again, she was gone. And all I could think was, maybe she’s right. My gosh, I was standing next to the dead body of a child, and all I could do was feel sorry for myself.”
I rifled through my repertoire for something to say. For a moment, I thought he might cry, but he had thought about it so much; there weren’t any tears left.
“I guess I am petty, or else I don’t know why I remember every insult she throws at me. She was always the one with the photographic memory. Heck, she was better at everything—dancing, chess, punctuality . . . .
“And the thing that really ticks me off is that I still want her to accept me. You’d think I’d be old enough not to feel the need to justify myself to my big sister. But oh no, the years go by, and I still think she’s God.”
I put my drink aside. “There’s nothing selfish about holding out hope for the human race. Most of us would rather see you than her any day.”
“No, you don’t get it! Fear of death is not the same thing as love of life!” His palm came down violently on “not,” and the table rocked precariously. I managed to rescue my drink and the bottle pitching towards Life, but his glass fell off the table and shattered on the concrete.
A short strand of expletives fell from his mouth. “Oh my gosh, I’m sorry.”
Life bent down to pick up the pieces.
“Don’t touch anything, you’ll cut yourself. I’ll go tell the waitress.”
Dara was kind about it, maybe because I’ve seen her around the university. And I’m a regular. “Don’t worry, happens all the time. I’ll send someone to clean it up.”
I went back outside. Life was gazing at the fragments. I touched his arm. “Hey, you okay?”
He looked up. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
Against my better judgment, I looked at my watch. “Listen, I really hate to leave you, but I’ve got to go.”
“Shopping. I need a dress for a wedding on Saturday. My mother’s friend’s daughter, you know, so I’ve got to ooze success. Which my wardrobe does not.”
“I’ll come with you.”
“Oh, come on. You are not telling me you want to go clothes shopping with a girl.”
“Look, the last time I let you dress yourself, you went to that techno party dressed in jeans.”
“I don’t care what it takes to get in, I am not wearing black leather pants.” I tipped as much as I could, for the glass. “Well, if you really want to, let’s go.”
* * *
We ended up in a midscale department store, jutting out the east side of the mall. Life tagged along as I wandered around women’s apparel. “What are you looking for, exactly?”
“See, I don’t know. I told you you’d regret this.”
“Nah, I’ve got all day.”
“Well, I’ve been known to exceed just about everyone’s boredom threshold.”
“How about this?” He held it up.
“That would be great, except that I don’t randomly lose 5 dress sizes in four days, and that I look stupid in gold sequins.”
“Hey, I was just trying to help.”
“Yeah, I know. Forgive my crabbiness. Dress shopping just has a way of souring my spirits.” I contemplated something nearby.
“You can’t buy that.”
“And why not?”
“I forbid you to dress 20 years older than your age.”
I considered it. “Okay, point taken.”
“How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?”
“12. How come?”
“I was about to accuse you of squandering your youth, but I guess I can’t anymore.”
“Nope. My youth and I are joined at the hip. Which is not good for me because my youth is growing taller.” I was fingering a two-piece set—a long, strappy dress, white chiffon over polyester, with a matching wrap. “This is the kind of thing I could never wear any place I’d be recognized.”
“It’d be too much of a shock. I never wear stuff like this.”
“I don’t know. Maybe I’m afraid that if I don’t wear something suitably bland, people might think I have a personality.” I glanced at the price tag and whistled softly. “This number is higher than my last exam grade.”
He looked over my shoulder. “Ouch.”
“The sad part is, I don’t know whether you mean my grade or the price.”
“I meant the price.”
I stared at the tag for a few seconds, then lifted the whole thing off the rack. I disappeared into the fitting rooms and emerged two minutes later. “I am convinced that my mother only enrolled me in elementary gymnastics so that I could one day zip up my own dress.” I turned around to contemplate myself in the wall mirror. I took out the clip holding my hair up and shook it out.
Life was looking at my reflection. “Wow. You look stunning.”
I tried to frown critically before I had to smile. I turned to face him and cocked my head. “You mean it?”
“Oh, absolutely. Black and white—“
I didn’t let him finish. Between the racks of dresses, I closed my eyes, threw up my arms, and danced like I wouldn’t dare at really dark frat parties. “I want somethin’ else / to get me through this / semi-charmed kinda life / baby, baby / I want somethin’ else / I’m not listenin’ when you say / goodbye . . . .” Hair and chiffon flew every which way.
He was amused. “You’re ridiculous. And you said you have no spontaneous style.”
“That wasn’t style,” I said, between gasps of laughter. “That was instinct.” I collapsed against the wall. I could still hear it playing faintly. “I love that song.”
Life looked down at me as if I really were 12.
“What the heck, I’ll buy it.”
“You can’t wear white chiffon to someone else’s wedding.”
“I know. I’ve got an ultra-conservative starched peach skirt I can wear. They all know I’m a failure anyway.”
I changed and paid quickly. We threaded our way around the cosmetics counters to the exit. Life picked up a maple leaf, dried to a deep maroon, as we walked along the curb. “Speaking of failure, why are you failing organic chemistry?”
“Because I’m too lazy to make myself remember what ammonia does in the presence of an alkyl halide.” But I wasn’t bitter anymore.
“No, I mean, why are you taking organic chemistry in the first place?”
“Because, my dear, I am a biology major.”
“Biology majors need to know what something does in the presence of whatever?”
“Someday, I might be a doctor, and I’ll have to know that stuff.” I stopped walking and swinging the bag. “Y’know, I don’t mind failing so much as I mind being an incompetent danger to society.”
Life held up the leaf and squinted at it. “I think you take it all too seriously. I mean, it’s just life.” A gust of wind caused by a speeding Firebird whisked the leaf out of his hand, and I watched it tumble down Springvale Boulevard.
He dropped his hand. “Can I walk you home?”
I turned away from the leaf to look at him. “Yeah, okay.”
Suddenly I laughed hysterically and started running down the sidewalk.
He yelled after me. “Hey, is Danielle Steele any good?”
“Not when you’re depressed!” I called back.
* * *
Life followed me up the wooden staircase. “You never showed me your new apartment.” He looked up at me on the landing. “Does looking through these slats of wood ever make you fear for your life?” he asked. “Every day,” I said, grinning as I fumbled in my jacket pocket for the key. The door swung open reluctantly.
“Here it is,” I said. “North Plymouth Avenue #3g.”
“What a mess,” he mumbled too audibly. Rivulets of books, papers, and large cardboard boxes splashed all over the cream-colored carpet.
“This would all be obsessively cleared away, given two and half days, except that I’ve noticed I use organization as a means of avoiding real work.” I threw the bag on top of a pile of rejection slips and picked my way around the papers into the kitchen.
“Make yourself comfortable, if possible.”
“You weren’t supposed to hear that. Sorry.”
“’Sokay,” the light edge of my voice floating into the living area.
“Can I get you something to drink? Virgin, you know.”
“Anything but lemonade.” I saw his smile flash in the corner of my eye as I turned around to open a cabinet.
Moments later, I swept out of the kitchen. “Voilà,” I said melodramatically and presented the drink to him with a restrained flourish.
“What is that?”
“Ginger ale in a martini glass, complete with paper umbrella and maraschino cherry.”
“Uh-huh. And where did you get the martini glass?”
The phone rang, and I jumped up. “Fates, let that be an editor and not an IRS agent.” I picked up. “’Lo? Oh, hi. Ha, ha. No, of course I haven’t started.” I tucked the portable phone under my ear and began scrubbing the dishes from lunch. “No, I didn’t forget. Um, thanks for asking, but I think I’ll be too far behind to contribute. No, that’s fine, I’ll just read it. Yeah, I know, I’ll find a way. Thanks. See ya.” I hung up and sighed.
“Who was that?”
“Trina. She’s coordinating a discussion group on the Inferno, which I haven’t started and which I was just reminded is 303 pages long. She said they could catch me up at the discussion, but I’m pretending I’m actually going to read it on time.” I rinsed the last of the dishes and flicked the water off my hands into the sink.
I leaned against the kitchen entranceway. In the hallway to the one bedroom, Life was perusing the contents of the walls. “’First prize. Grade 2 Jump-roping.’ Really?”
“Yeah, I was the last one jumping, so they gave me a blue ribbon.”
“Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity & disenchantment it is as eternal as Heaven.”
“Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata, as warped by yours truly. The original phrase is ‘as perennial as the grass,’ but I thought it was horrible to compare love to the grass.”
“You have nice handwriting.”
“The offspring of old-school handwriting books.”
“You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here . . . .” He trailed off, then kept reading. “With all its sham, drudgery, & broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.”
Life turned his head to look at me. I pried myself off the doorframe and stood up straight. I was making efforts to look awake because the post-sugar-high crash from the lemonade was settling in. He walked over and placed his hands on my shoulders. Through a thin layer of disorientation, I felt his green eyes searching my face. I was trying to figure out for what as he kissed me. He pulled away; I blinked.
“The No Exit cast party,” I said.
“What?” He was rubbing his eyes with one hand.
“The No Exit cast party. That’s where I got the martini glass.”
“No kidding?” He wasn’t listening.
I waited out the silence.
“Um, yeah, I guess I’d better be going.”
I walked him to the door. “Thanks for hangin’ out with me and my karma all day.”
“Hey, no problem.” His expression cleared. “Same time next week?”
I shrugged. “Sure, why not.”
“’K, but I get to pick the place this time. I will find a way to get you drunk.”
“Not on your life,” I deadpanned. “And no more trance bars!” I called down the stairs. He waved from the pavement and ran away in the rain.
I locked the door and set the security alarm. I put my keys back in the candleholder on the counter. Life had left the two-thirds-empty martini glass next to the phone. He had eaten the cherry but had left the stem, tied in a neat knot, and the umbrella floating in the glass.
I took the umbrella and walked over to the window looking out on the parking lot. I opened and closed the umbrella as I scanned the skies for the moon. I found her in the last quarter. After tossing the umbrella into a corner, I plopped down on the floor. I flung the shopping bag on top of the umbrella and started filing my rejection slips by date.