|Oct/Nov 2007 Fiction|
My first impression of Phillip was mixed. We had met only briefly, and in society, and could not exchange but more than three or four words. The entire group sat around a table and conversed on all sorts of controversies; the discussion got heated and cooled down a few times before all the wine had been drunk. Phillip remained on the outskirts, however, by the foot of the spread, glancing periodically at his watch and making but a few asinine comments that betrayed a man satisfied only with himself and generally disinterested in the world as a whole. What irritated me most was his empty stare that prejudged everything I was saying. At that time, the group was vigorously debating whether it was right for the United States to use military force in Iraq outside of the United Nations mandate. Some were for war, others against it, and as it seemed, everyone had a strong opinion. The spring of '03 was one of those tense times, like so many before, when the world sat at the edge of its seat like a neat old maid, and wondered what would become of all the nice porcelain. Phillip kept his silence and finally said only one thing: "No one will take it seriously in two years' time."
I was quick then to draw conclusions about people, about wars, about tragedies and comedies, and as first impressions go, Phillip was dismissed as a non-entity, a generally misinformed, anodyne specimen of misplaced male vigor. I said to Clara as we drove home, "That chap at the foot of the table was drab. He's either completely disinterested in all of us or a simpleton."
It would take years and an almost priestly patience for my opinion to change. Phillip would grow from a white blot in blue jeans and green shirt to somewhat of a mystery, and we modern Americans love nothing more than a good riddle.
I see him as he comes home, takes off his coat, smiles at his image in the mirror, addresses the shock of blonde hair that has fallen over his broad forehead; he rumbles to himself, whistles, pats himself on his stomach, leaves the shoes at the door. In the washroom, he unclasps his belt, sits over the toilet bowl, and spreads the broadsheet of the daily, where he peruses the sports pages, scanning the scores. Changing, he makes his way to the kitchen, where he puts a slice of ham on two-day-old bagel and chews through this meager combination with a few gulps from his milk glass.
I see him before his television set: he looks past it, into the wall. Phillip watches commercials and sitcoms and he goes to bed at 10 p.m. He greets only one person on his way to work, the woman who takes the elevator with him at the very same time. He doesn't know her name, but silently he refers to her as Rose, due to some slight resemblance she has to his grade-school teacher. Rose is slim, older than Phillip by at least ten years, extremely well groomed, and she perennially wears a pearl necklace, the likes of which is most often seen around the slender necks of Presidential wives.
I suspect that even without much consideration, he was certain some months into the regular encounter that he had fallen in love.
I see him staring at Rose as she leaves the elevator every morning, looking at her oblong calves and the fitted skirt that comes to the knee. I see him looking at his reflection in the mirror every night and thinking about what it would be like if Rose were to knock on his door.
It is also important to note at this point that Phillip, at his thirty five years of age, was a divorcé, having, some seven years ago, found out that his wife had cheated on him with one of their close friends, who also happened to be Phillip's first cousin. Her lover and future husband was so torn by guilt that he expressed his sorrow to Phillip and his mother, and within less than ten days, Phillip was signing piles of documents which regularly accompany divorce proceedings in civilized countries. The day when Phillip spoke to his wife about the affair, she could respond with nothing more than a dumb smile, the same smile that Stepan Arkadyevitch Oblonsky let cross his face when caught in mid fornication by his own spouse. Phillip, I suspect, never really wanted an explanation. He wanted closure. His wife left that very night to stay at her sister's, and he opened the fridge door, slapping a slice of ham on a two-day-old bagel.
I think of Phillip as he is, as he was, and I cannot avoid recalling what he once said to me: "The saddest day in my life was not the day when my child died. Don't get me wrong, I was dried out inside, and I felt very very tired, but I could not bring myself to feel what I thought one should feel at such a tragedy. The saddest day of my life was actually in my childhood when I found out that my parents were set on moving away, and that I would lose all my friends, that I would have to go about a new town as a complete unknown. I cried myself to sleep for two months."
Another time, I remember him telling me, over lunch, how he could not feel despondent at losing his wife, because he was not sure that her infidelity was indeed the reason that broke up their relationship. "There must have been something else about her that just made her unable to commit," he said. "I couldn't get into her mind. She was always an independent woman. That is why I fell in love with her."
Phillip was, is, a man of inaction. He is pitied by most of those who know him, including his ex-wife. Those who do not know him well enough to pity him can only despise him for his perceived laziness.
Inaction was once upon a time taken as a sign of a pensive mind, a philosophical predilection. Diogenes of Sinope lived in a barrel and did absolutely nothing, the pinnacle of Sophist rejection of the world. Canalus, a naked Brahmin, followed Alexander the Great's host all around India and back into Persia, where, tired out, instead of asking for help, he self immolated. Later, the Greeks would, in his honor, start an entire movement of Gymnopedes, who worshipped nothing, accomplished nothing, who even despised the trouble of vestments.
In our society, in a modern, capitalist North America, action is directly linked to profit, which is directly linked to happiness, which, in turn, is the ultimate value by which to measure life. Men of inaction are quickly dismissed as indolent; some more radical people (including my girlfriend Clara) immediately brand them immoral. Laziness as a sin, as a transgression against the divine, was first brought forth by Christian theology, specifically under the Protestant guise of equating success with entry into heaven. Francis Bacon went as far as to suggest that laziness is a disease (he would be the first philosopher to actually make a strong case for something that must have been up until then nothing more than a schoolmaster's edifying quip). Indolence could only be cured by a love for God, and that love required nothing less than transformative work. Phillip was thus immoral and incapable of love. His life was that of a man who had ruined his marriage, been a terrible disaster professionally (I forgot to mention that he started off at twenty-two as a talented architect working for one of the city's posh outfits, but by the time he was thirty, he had to contend with designing, on contract, strip mall layouts and blueprints), and, only recently (and most invidiously) some tongues had begun to accuse him of the death of his one child. But as a man of inaction, Phillip did not reject accusations, did not fight for his good name. He thought perhaps that all would be forgotten, even himself.
Rose, whose actual name was Evelyn, lived two floors above Phillip with two overweight Siamese cats. She was a two-time divorcée, born in Tulsa, and having moved to New York in the late '80s to work in the publishing industry, she was quite good at keeping her western heritage to herself. After a few years of careful study, she aptly adopted a Manhattan twang that did not come off quite right but could be blamed on some character trait (aloofness mostly) rather than a dialectical mispronunciation. Her first husband still called her once a week. "A sad man, such a sad man, who cannot deal with what lies around the corner," she would say to her friends over a martini.
Rose took excellent care of her body, of her skin, of her hair and nails. Over the years she had assumed a serious preoccupation with entropy; she viewed herself as a painting that would inevitably change due to overexposure, but which could be maintained by application of expensive creams and, where necessary, by overwhelming the beholder with an expensive frame, lest the little imperfections come to the fore. Her self-preservation was a process that took more and more time, but which she did not find frustrating. The only true witness of her vulnerability, of her utmost frustration with the repetitive cycle of physical and palliative strain, were the two quiet, identical cats. Rose was thus in communion with them, and acquired, as most people who surround themselves with such animals do, a certain feline characteristic, a sense of evasion, a sense of suspicion, of avoidance.
One cannot imagine that Rose thought twice about Phillip, who, often unshaven, unkempt, with a florid pate that glowed in certain lighting through his thin hair, peered at her from over the upper rim of his brown spectacles. She did not find Phillip unattractive—actually she had gone to bed lately with men much less appealing than innocuous Phil—she just did not notice him. He had become much like the art-deco light shade in the elevator, its red walls, the gum that someone had stuck between the fifteenth and sixteenth floor. He had become foil.
There are two types of people that I've ever come across: those who live in the world and those who live off the world. Phillip belonged in the former category, while Rose was quite content to be in the latter. It was not surprising, therefore, that Rose drove her career the same way she drove her Landrover: quickly, jaggedly, with and against traffic, with and against speeding tickets, parked and double-parked, clean and dirty. Furthermore it was not surprising to see Rose in her office that looked over the Rockefeller Center and down toward Wall Street, confidently crossing her legs as she took notes on her laptop, filing her nails while on the phone with a client, gesturing slightly to her assistant, mouthing her wish list for the day's lunch.
It is also not odd to see Phillip at the outskirts of the table, where people whom he calls friends discuss urgent issues of history and politics. It is not odd to see him collect the shaving detritus with a square of toilet paper, lest he leave a single trace of himself in the sink. It is also natural not to notice him when he stands behind you in the bus, or the elevator, because, much like the objects which make up our environment, Phillip is within our frame but never acting against its laws. That is, Phillip lives in his surroundings, almost organically, while Rose wills herself through the jungle of all that is not her.
Quite recently, perhaps even two weeks before the event that is the culmination of this story, Rose had her regular, annual check-up, complete with all the reassuring and uncomfortable details, the cold tongs that pressed her insides, the stethoscope that felt like someone's frigid palm on her breast, the draining of her bloodstream. While she appeared healthy, a few days later she was called back for additional tests. Her leukocyte counts were too high, and this suggested some sort of an inflammation that could be related to a virus. Calmly, the doctor reassured her and insisted that there was most probably nothing wrong with her, rather, that they had made a mistake in the laboratory, and these additional tests would clear it all up. A self-confident person, Rose took the news with a stiff upper lip, yet as she drove home, she found that her hands shook as she shifted her car's multiple gears, that her innards were rebelling against the cooked turkey wrap she had had for lunch, that her feet were cold, and that her face was grimacing back at her in the mirror in disbelief.
For the rest of the week, Rose was beside herself in pity. She called her mother, her sister in London, even spoke to the two ex-husbands, and while she did not tell anyone of her predicament, she felt even further depressed by the conversations, by their finality. At the point of termination, as the receiver reached the plastic of the phone, she fought off sharp pangs in her stomach; she was convinced that perhaps this was the very last time she would speak to all of them as a healthy person, as one among the living.
Death and Phillip
As we saw earlier, Phillip once said to me (Why me? I am not sure. Perhaps because our friendship grew at the outskirts, at the very last moments of gatherings, at the edges of tightly knit groups where he did not belong and where I felt trapped.) that the saddest moment in his life was not the death of his only child. When his child was born, he had already been married for two years. He had a career in architecture, a wife who loved him. Some would say that Phillip was a man who was happy, whose life was blessed with the right elements of success and fortune. Yet, even though I did not know him then, I imagine him as constantly uneasy. At night, he peers through the window, past the contours of dark office towers that form his southern view, and he sees himself slowly floating away, away and away, into the distance, far from everything that surrounds and has ever surrounded him. Not toward a defined spot. Not toward a defined person. Not even into a specific time in the past or future. He sees himself floating nowhere: a dark room, an absence of space, a womb-like non-entity where he is alone with himself. Organically alone. I imagine that he realizes the importance of what he sees. It is his life beyond life, his conception of his own end, and as such, it can be defined as Phillip's first, true vision of death. Having grasped what it means, Phillip sighs, relaxed. For Phillip, death is nothing more than a natural extension of his current state, a kind of invitation to entropy, a material acceptance of its inevitability.
Three years after his child was born, the little girl was diagnosed with a malignant tumor in her throat. Two months after, she was dead. His wife would tell her friends that the enormity of the tragedy drove them apart. That she turned to solace with another man because she could no longer associate Phillip with happiness, with her will to live. I think that she was only partially right.
The day when he received the news of his daughter's impending death, Phillip sat on his couch, his elbows propped against his spread legs, staring at the floor. Three years was a long enough time to fall in love with a small girl. He could not say that he did not love her. Yet, there, where he had expected sharp pangs, grief, torment, where he had expected a fit of rage (which he had never experienced), he found nothing but disillusion, viscous and dense, like tar. Disillusion. Disappointment. Innocuous sentiments that one feels toward acquaintances who break dates, at politicians who break election promises. This gaping hole would not leave him, even at the funeral, even as he delivered a farewell speech in front of dozens of grief-stricken friends.
At home, he remembered, strangely, his distant childhood. A single summer. A new bike that he had ridden along a green street. Pleading to his father not to move him away, never, from that small place where he felt whole.
What Phillip's wife saw in him was not sorrow nor grief. It was acceptance. If she wanted to turn away from the tragedy, she should have grabbed Phillip by his large hands and asked him to take her to the empty spot where he spent his meandering day-dreams, because there she would find absolutely nothing.
Phillip's divorce was a clean process. It was civil and polite, and to this day, his wife calls him to check up. She even comes to his apartment once in a while, as her new husband waits in his car by the entrance, and she stocks his freezer with premade food. These little rituals are, in her mind, her way of supporting his grief for their daughter, for she has already moved onward (she quickly had two children with her new husband). If someone had to stay and keep vigil on the little grave, it best be Phillip.
Indeed, regularly, Phillip would take a stroll by her little tombstone. I would come with him once in a while, and we'd talk little, if at all. Why, you ask, would I spend time with a man so clearly lost within himself? It is good to walk on both edges of life, in its deep and shallow ends, through its sands. At night, I made sure to clean the grains from between my toes.
Death and Rose
For two entire weeks, Rose was beside herself. She could not think, eat, watch television. She started novels and left them in restaurants, on park benches. Without thinking, she cancelled all her appointments. Tom, the man she was seeing, came by once or twice, inquiring into her state, but she brushed him off without much decorum. She was dying!! Did they not see it? An entire universe was ending with her, and they could not sense it! Did she need to spell it out to everyone? Clearly? Explain the mechanics of the disease that could be, even at the very moment, corroding her flesh? Would they need X-rays and scans to believe that she was a special human being, one whose life was ending against her will, before its time?
It infuriated her that people assumed she was rude. She could not stand talking to her friends, who would ask her if everything was all right, accusingly, as if it was she who was inconveniencing them with her impending death. At night, alone, she cried and screamed into her pillows.
Rose had scant experience with death. Once, when she was eleven, she saw her older brother shoot a blue jay with a pellet gun; the little creature tumbled down through some branches and flapped its wing once or twice before it expired. The boy lifted his prey triumphantly and threw it at Rose. She screamed and cried to her mother. Later that night, she enjoyed watching her brother's buttocks slapped red by their father's vigorous paddle strokes.
The death of the blue jay, unceremonious, unnatural, violent, and red, would always be associated with equally red buttocks, with glee and tears, with tumult and satisfaction. To Rose death was nothing supernatural, nothing spiritual. Not at all. She was a rational woman who did not believe in the afterlife, but who also did not really question its possibility. Death and afterlife had nothing to do with each other. Death was an extension of life, because life was all she knew and all she could judge by, its vicissitudes and its energy, its movement and its greed, its complexity. Her death would be as tragic as it would be comical, as private as it would be publicly humiliating. At no point could she fathom the lack of her presence, not even when she imagined her funeral. Death, for people who love life, is impossible. And in its impossibility, it is utterly frightening.
Rose was blessed with complete awareness of her self, her body, her mind, hair, arms, legs, tongue, the world around her and the world that she could only imagine existed and wanted to visit, taste, and touch. The experience of death, not its final destination, was so palpable that she could not bear to stand it for one day longer and would end her life with her own hand if need be.
And then the doctor called. She was healthy.
Death, Phillip, and Rose
The culmination of the story occurs in the very same elevator, where Phillip, some months ago, had felt the first stirrings of love, and had felt, for the first time in a long while, alive.
Rose, healthy again and as vigorous as ever, walks into the elevator, chewing on an apple in her left hand and holding a cell phone pressed to her ear with her right. Phillip is already behind her, having greeted her with a nod and a smile, and having supposed that her brief glance offered some reciprocity. She is on the phone with the man whom she had been seeing, and whom she had rudely treated just a week ago; she is trying to get through to him at work and is in the midst of explaining to his secretary that it's Evelyn on the phone. Evelyn. Tell him it's Evelyn. I can't wait, I'm in the elevator, I'll lose the signal at any moment. E-v-e-l-y-n.
Evelyn. If she had been Rose, Rose as he had named and imagined her, she would probably have lived to see the man who was waiting to hear from her after having been so poorly treated. Yet, Phillip was greatly disappointed with her real name. With her real voice. With how she held the cell phone in her right hand and the apple in her left, attempting to chew and speak at the same time, and how, irritated at the secretary, she had inhaled one too many times, lodging a piece of fruit in her larynx, dropping both the fruit and the phone, and squeezing her throat in panic, pressing random buttons, the alarm, coughing loudly, and then quietly, wheezing, turning pale and then blue and finally collapsing on the floor. Had Evelyn been Rose, she would have perhaps noticed Phillip behind her as she walked into the elevator and would have turned to face him askance. At that moment her eyes, blue-green, would have perhaps elicited a human response in a man who stood behind her, disappointed and disillusioned. Unfortunately, Phillip was foil. He was no different than the red alarm button she had pressed searching for help that could never arrive in time. In addition, Phillip was a man to whom death was nothing more than a distant spot, neither a place, nor a time, nor a person. Indefinite and irrelevant. Much like life itself.
Phillip could have strangled her in the elevator. He could have murdered her in the parking lot as she parked her car. In this story, Phillip reached the ground floor and stepped calmly, carefully, watching not to touch her motionless body with his shoe, out of the elevator.