Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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For many years — the majority of my life, in fact — acknowledging death’s inevitability exerted little psychological pressure on me. I had no fear of passing, as they say, from this world into the next, or, assuming no next world exists, simply entering oblivion. I often reminded myself of something the acclaimed Buddhist writer Alan Watts had said, which is that none of us can remember our birth, and neither will we remember our death, so what do we really have to fear? I’d become less sure than I had been in my youth about the possibility of an afterlife — even the word afterlife made less sense to me, because I could not separate life from consciousness, and consciousness was everything to me. For years I had been telling myself that I would rather die “early” than recede into mental and/or physical decrepitude, but I hadn’t — at least, not until recently — acknowledged that even though the bodily “me” would continue to morph and change, decaying with time, breaking down, acquiring new flaws that wouldn’t simply go away but would have to be dealt with, the interior “me” would stay more or less the same, the illusion of continuous identity over time being perhaps the most powerful and convincing trick that the mind plays on us.
But lately my thinking about death had become so pervasive that I’d begun to see it everywhere. The books I read and the television shows I watched and the songs I sang along to on the radio nearly all dealt, in either oblique or straightforward ways, with human mortality, and in the evenings, after making dinner for my family and cleaning up and taking the dog for her evening constitutional, I often played a video game in which I guided my avatar around city streets, killing people and evading police until the green bar indicating how much “life” I had left grew short, then turned red, then disappeared altogether.
No activity, though, inspired thoughts of my own imminent demise as much as riding a bicycle. I’d been riding regularly for six years but only recently had graduated from car-free greenways to rural back roads, and when I described my usual route to friends and colleagues, they often expressed dismay. I got it. I, too, once would have thought it nothing less than a suicide mission to ride my bike on a narrow, curving road where jacked-up dual-cab pickup trucks hauling trailers would blow past me on blind corners. Though I rationalized that the road was popular with cyclists and that the vast majority of motorists, even if they were speeding, were aware of this fact, I used the occasion of every car approaching me from the rear to envision that today was the day I’d be knocked off my bike or simply plowed over, and then, due to devastating injuries to my physical self, the thought-producing and sensation-generating entity that pulsed so wondrously at the center of my being would dissolve.
In the past, whenever I’d had occasion to confront the fact of my limited existence, I would try to comfort myself by acknowledging that I had already lived “long enough.” It wasn’t that I wanted to die right now, or even within the next twenty or thirty years, but I could reflect upon the life I’d lived and consider it full. I’d grown up in the verdant mountains of the American Southeast, survived a strict-but-loving religious upbringing, fallen in love, had my heart broken, traveled abroad and within the U.S., married, fathered a child, moved to a college town in the mountains of Virginia, taught classes, written books, hosted parties, and posted photos of extraordinary sunsets and failed basketball trick shots and local waterfalls to my preferred social-media site. I suspected that, unless I contracted some painful disease, I would never actually want to die and be ferried off to heaven, or to hell, or to become a ghost haunting the world, or to simply disappear.
I couldn’t think of myself dying without thinking about my wife and son and the effect it would have on their lives. I didn’t know if my wife would remarry, but I found myself hoping that she would find someone, a man a few years older, perhaps: successful, wealthy but not incredibly so, active, handsome. I found it strangely comforting to imagine her, after my untimely passing, cohabiting with someone she loved and who took care of her needs; a man who knew his way around the kitchen, and how to clean, and — not insignificantly — was a safe driver, as my wife did not appreciate when I drove fast or recklessly, or even semi-fast or semi-recklessly, and was made intensely uncomfortable by the application of the gas pedal to the floorboard, no matter what the reason.
I had not played this little game before — of imagining the particular characteristics of the man my widowed wife might marry. Far more familiar to me was the exercise in which I imagined my wife had died, leaving me to find a new partner, which I had convinced myself I would eventually do, even if it meant settling — as it certainly would — for someone I loved less.
Part of me wishes that I couldn’t imagine being married to anyone but my wife, but I can, because it is my business as a writer to imagine, and because I have spent the better part of my life daring myself to consider the so-called unimaginable. Furthermore, I spent my youth imagining who, in the future, might end up becoming the love of my life. I often stood in the hallway of the house where I grew up, a corridor whose walls were hung with framed pictures and where it was normally so dark that I had to switch on an overhead light to study images of my mother and father on their wedding day, after which I would ask my mother to take down the music box — a glossy, polished container whose lid I liked to open so I could watch the gears rotate as they plinked out “Clair de Lune,” the song my mother said was “their” song. I wanted a song. I wanted a wife. I wanted a wedding and a reception where I fed said wife cake. And for the first quarter century of my life, every girl I found myself attracted to auditioned for that role — if only in my head.
I feel compelled to say now that I would never leave my wife, not even in my fantasies. And since I would not leave her, I had to imagine conditions that would allow, with conclusive verisimilitude, this new story line to exist. The easiest, most plausible way for this to happen was for my wife to die. It turned out this was easy to imagine. I’d been imagining the deaths of people I’ve loved for as long as I could remember. As a kid, when one or both of my parents failed to return home on time, I would gaze out our living-room window into the dark yard and the even darker woods beyond, and a voice inside me would say, They’re dead. Your parents are dead. Gone forever. And now you’re an orphan. You’ll have to live somewhere else, with someone else. And I’d imagine being shipped off to Africa — specifically to Abidjan, Ivory Coast, where my aunt and uncle, who were to raise my sister and me in the case of our parents’ deaths, lived. I’d have to share space with my three younger girl cousins and live in a house surrounded by a wall and guarded by a man named Mohammed, who had once been called upon to machete to death a black mamba in their yard.
As harrowing as it was to imagine my wife dying — leaving our son inconsolable and his father helpless in a house whose every surface had the power to summon her ghost — I had to admit that it was stimulating to think of reentering the dating world in middle age, joining matchmaking websites and swiping through profiles on my phone. Perhaps, to lessen the anguish of my wife’s passing, I would gorge myself on the thrill of meaningless sexual encounters in a way that I never actually had when single, having never either enjoyed or regretted a one-night stand.
What might these other women ask of me? Would I attend one of those new fundamentalist churches that had verbs for names, like “Arise” or “Emerge” or “Transform,” and that advertised good coffee and rock music and were led by a team of young pastors with tattoos who cursed when appropriate and wore stylish, ragged clothes and headset mics when they preached? Could I become a CrossFit demagogue? A vegetarian? A Unitarian? The only thing I knew was that I would have to become someone else. The me I was now — predicated as it was on my proximity to my wife and her needs, so many of which I failed to meet — would come to seem alien. If I stared at a woman long enough, no matter who, scenes of possible futures would flash through my brain. If I let any one scenario play out, however, I always foresaw complications — the main one being that none of these new women I might somehow convince to go out with me and possibly share a bed with me was my wife. My wife, I needed to remember, was exceptional, and it was for this very reason that I’d married her. Strong, reasonable, employing common sense at every turn, a powerhouse of knowledge, capable of seeing through whatever bullshit persona another human attempted to execute, beautiful but not obsessed with her appearance, quick to anger but quicker to apologize, she was — at her very core — a loving, funny, kind, softhearted woman, content with the simple pleasures of good food and good drink, a clean house, a back rub, a hug, an evening stroll, an absorbing mystery to watch before bed, a good night’s rest, and a new rug for the living room.
If, on the other hand, I died first and my wife remarried, it was easy to imagine that the man she might end up with would be a kind of upgrade. Maybe this new guy who appeared — not too soon after my untimely passing but sooner than my wife had ever allowed herself to imagine — would be the kind of person who, like her, had lost one or both parents too early and could therefore commiserate — or, more likely, understand the need not to commiserate, because, for the most part, details and stories about long-dead parents need not be dwelled upon. Maybe my wife and this new guy would share other things in common: an impulse to always turn the radio volume down a few notches; a disdain for cold cheese of any variety; a deep suspicion of CrossFit enthusiasts; a lack of desire to sign up for a yoga class, regardless of how transformative their friends promised it would be. This new guy, I surmised, would enjoy exercising but not necessarily need to go for long hikes in the woods, which were full of spiderwebs and poison-secreting plants and stinging insects — unless, that is, my wife were to develop a sudden yearning to experience some particular wilderness, which most likely she wouldn’t, as she’s always been content to walk through the neighborhood where we lived and where we recently purchased what she jokingly refers to as our “forever home,” meaning that, if all goes according to plan, we will grow old and die in this house. Though perhaps if I happened to croak unexpectedly, she might feel the need to move on, if only to get away from the rooms that reminded her so much of me. Of course, it’s also possible that if the new guy bought her a rug for the living room and finally purchased some decent furniture for the master bedroom — as my wife and I have talked many times about doing, looking online at various configurations of dressers, beds, bedside tables, and wardrobes but never seeming to be able to decide on anything in the end and so making do with the old-but-serviceable furnishings we’ve been living with for more than a decade — then maybe, perhaps almost certainly, she could begin a new life in the same house.
There was something pleasurable in thinking about this other, invented man, for to imagine a man who was not me, but who had won my approval and favor, necessitated that I assign to him the very attributes that I myself lacked. I supposed, for instance, that this new man wouldn’t snore, or, if he did, he’d figure out a solution rather than outright denying that it ever happened. Unlike me, the new guy would be good with his hands, able to fix anything that broke, generous, doting, but not so much as to smother her with unwanted affection. Despite an appreciation for music of all kinds, including whatever pop confection happened to pour out of the car radio thanks to my son’s love of the local Top 40 station, the new guy would not be into music too much; would never waste time searching for rare LPs online; would not secretly drop two hundred bucks buying vinyl on eBay. Maybe he’d be able to play a few songs on the piano or guitar, but he wouldn’t have aspirations to be in a band or someday cut an album. In fact, this other, invented man would be burdened with few aspirations, aside from making enough money to pay the bills and set aside a decent amount for retirement, and attending to the needs of my wife and son, and maybe gardening, or, better, learning his way around the kitchen until he could bake gluten-free cakes and breads that no one, least of all my wife, could tell were flourless.
Needless to say, this new man would not play video games for hours in front of the downstairs TV or have a juvenile affinity for hooded sweatshirts, except maybe in the mornings, in lieu of a robe, though I could definitely see him being the robe-wearing type. And it was clear to me that — robe or no — he would never stick his head into a room where my wife was working and suggest that it might be a good time to join him in bed, or ask point-blank if she might want to join him in the removal of his clothes, because even though this guy — the new one, I mean — would be in possession of a profound libido, he would also have vast reserves of patience, and would go to workmanlike lengths to keep said libido in check, and would never suggest, except through his unwavering ability to put my wife first in all things, that he was the least bit interested in sex. He’d never try to steer a casual hug into something more amorous; never raise his eyebrows in a comically suggestive way; never purposefully walk past her in his underwear with a morning erection, as if this sign of virility would stir her to action, regardless of how often this same effort had failed in the past, and though he might seem indifferent, as soon as the woman suggested that now might be a good time to have sex, he would be instantaneously ready to go.
I imagined, too, that the new guy would be the sort to take care of himself. He would not drink excessively, would not guzzle a pre-five-o’clock cocktail before my wife returned home, for fear that she might observe, accurately, that he was drinking too much. The new guy would not sneak cigarettes after everyone had gone to bed or smoke pot from a blown-glass pipe tucked away in the garage. The new guy would also never intentionally inflict any sort of surprise upon my wife, who is easily startled and therefore does not think it’s funny when someone creeps up on her and lightly touches her shoulder and says, “Boo!” Such a thing would never even occur to the new guy, who would not delight in antagonism of any kind, and would certainly not ever take the gong that was hanging in the downstairs office and sneak up behind my son while he was playing video games and bang it as hard as he could, creating a sound that would permeate the boy’s body, flooding him with a kind of aural pain and causing him to erupt into tears and causing the woman to come downstairs, for she, too, had been disturbed by the shock of its sudden loudness.
This new guy — this other, invented man — would not lose his mind when my son confessed that he had forgotten the passcode to his phone and had locked himself out of the device, an act that would necessitate a two-hour search for instructions on how to restore the phone without erasing any important data. This invented man could handle such a quest without temper tantrums, which meant that my wife would have no legitimate reason to hurl sarcastic barbs and remind him that his own father would not have behaved this way, and how once he — the man — had forgotten to bring his computer home from college during spring break and his own father had made the ten-hour round trip to retrieve it. This other, invented man would not fling his hands up whenever he found himself behind slow drivers or stuck for longer than he would like at a red light because he, the new guy, would — as previously mentioned — have vast, inexplicable reserves of patience; would not only exemplify the kind of unflappability that few dads can ever be said to possess, but would also share with my son the methods he employed to control his temper, and thus serve as an agent of tranquillity.
You might imagine that thinking of this other, invented man might make me feel jealous or insignificant, but the fact of the matter is, the more I invited him into my thoughts, the more familiar he became to me — so much so that you might even say I began to grow quite fond of him. Though he was completely made up, based on nobody I had ever met before, I could see him with surprising clarity: fit, clean-cut, maybe of Spanish or Italian or African descent, hair neatly trimmed, face freshly shaven, not sporting a three-to-four-day scruff due to downright laziness. The new guy would own suits and wear them when the occasion called for it. The new guy would attend church regularly, though he would do so not so much out of religious conviction as from the desire to belong to a community of faith, and because he enjoyed spending an hour a week in the company of devout people. He would wear shorts only when at the beach or poolside, opting for white slacks in the summer, dark pants in the winter. He would keep his hair crisply shorn via biweekly visits to a local barber: Nothing fancy, a $9.50 haircut with a two-dollar tip. Nose and ear and neck hair trimmed.
It occurred to me that I might write a story about this other, invented man, casting him as somebody that I — or, rather, the narrator of my story — would eventually meet: a fellow professor perhaps, or a doctor of some variety, an orthodontist or general practitioner. Perhaps the narrator of this story might have reason to make a visit to his primary-care provider, just to make sure none of his minor afflictions — an unidentified rash, or a recently smashed thumbnail — were, in fact, serious. But, because the narrator’s regular doctor — a plump, Christ-loving fellow who’d once likened smoking a single cigarette to hitting one’s hand with a hammer — was on vacation, he would be seen by a new guy. This affable newcomer would ask the narrator what he did for exercise, and the narrator would say, “A little cycling and the occasional racquetball match,” and the new doc might respond favorably, saying, “That’s great. I’m a big cycling and racquetball fan myself,” and the narrator would file that away, thinking, Maybe I should invite him out for a ride or a game, subsequently striking that from his thoughts, as it would seem too forward, and probably there was some kind of ethical standard that said doctors and patients were not to fraternize in such a way, but then the new guy would keep showing up in real life: the narrator would run into him at a matinee at the downtown movie theater, or see him at the Episcopal church he and his wife occasionally attended, and the narrator would tap him on the shoulder during coffee hour and make some lame joke, like “We have to stop meeting like this,” or “Come here often?” and the two men would end up making a date to ride Clover Hollow Trail or meet at War Memorial Gym on campus for a racquetball game, and eventually the narrator would introduce the new guy to his wife, and the two would immediately hit it off. Maybe they’d grown up in the same county in North Carolina, attended the same high school, or both run cross-country at competing schools — after all, the world was so small that such things weren’t inconceivable. Hadn’t the narrator and his wife attended the same university as undergrads, majored in the same subject, shared the same teachers, frequented the same bars, and even gone to the same R.E.M. concert, all without knowing each other? It was easy for me, the author of this tale, to imagine the narrator and his wife taking interest in this other man, inviting him to dinner, plying him with cocktails to get his life story, which would, of course, include a tragedy of some kind, a partner or girlfriend or spouse who had recently passed away. Maybe the other man’s deceased wife had once been pregnant, but complications had arisen, and whatever had caused the baby to die had also caused the mother to die, and the narrator and his wife would say, “We are so sorry to hear such a thing,” and the other man would become sad but then apologetically brush away a tear and ask for another glass of whatever he was having — just a splash more — and find a way to change the subject, and later, after he’d left and the narrator and his wife were cleaning up together, they’d plot to set this guy up with someone they knew — he was so nice, after all, and so talented — not knowing, of course, that the narrator was on his last legs, that he had no more than six months, maybe a year to live, and that it would be the new doctor who would diagnose the narrator with whatever illness he’d contracted, and who would refer him to an oncologist or a surgeon, and after the narrator’s eventual passing, his wife would end up turning to the new guy, first in grief, then in passion, and in the end the narrator, now a ghost, would attempt to convince the reader that he was not — nor ever could be — jealous.
Though I never actually wrote such a story, I continued to conjure the other, invented man in my mind, and so familiar did he become that I began to fantasize that I might very well run into him in real life, at the grocery store, say, or at the farmers’ market, or at a local eatery or watering hole. It became a kind of secret game for me: whenever I left the house, I found myself looking for this other man, taking for granted that if I could imagine him with such clarity, he — or some version of him — might actually appear somewhere, maybe as a referee of one of my son’s soccer matches: a fit, older man who wouldn’t stand for the bigger and stronger players expressing their frustrations with shoves and sloppy tackles, and the more I watched this referee, the more convinced I would become that he was the other man — the one I thought I had invented.
It would please me immensely to say, after that last paragraph, that I actually did see him, or someone I wanted to think was him, but I can’t. The only thing I can say is this: I invented another man, and now, as far as I can tell, he’s here to stay. And although I’d like to report otherwise, little has changed in my behavior since he first made himself known. I wake, read the news about our ailing democracy, greet my family, pour myself some coffee, and take note of the sun rising above the ridges behind our house, marveling that I did not expire in my sleep, that I am here, for now, to greet another day, to find ways to both adore and disappoint those I love and thus continue being myself. The spirit of the other, invented man lives on inside me, though, and somehow I find his presence to be a comfort. He is, of course, a projection, a fantasy, but I’ve convinced myself that he is a real possibility, that he might outlive me and have cause someday to paw through my personal effects languishing in the purgatories of closets and attics, and thus the other man might discover this story that I’m just now finishing, and hopefully he will recognize it as a kind of contract between him and me — or, at the very least, a benediction — so that he might go forth with courage and gratitude and live out the remainder of his life on earth knowing that I had somehow foreseen his coming and granted him, however feebly, my every blessing.
Matthew Vollmer’s story “The Other, Invented Man” is one of the best I’ve ever read in The Sun — so real, so funny, so heartwarming.
I decided to write this now, while I still have tears in my eyes, instead of waiting until later, when I’ll come to my senses about the absurdity of saying this to strangers.
I am that wife Matthew Vollmer describes in his story “The Other, Invented Man” [December 2018]. Unexpectedly widowed by a beloved husband at the age of forty-nine, I found my life agonizing. In addition to the shock of grief, his death left me uncertain and with problems I couldn’t imagine solving. But I sensed his presence, telling me to be patient — that something good was coming to me.
And it was. I met the man Vollmer describes, or some version of him, and in joining with him I escaped the worst of my grief and everything that was broken and unfixable.
Most days I live my life as though it were ordinary, but Vollmer’s story reminds me that some amount of magic brought me here.
Matthew Vollmer [“The Other, Invented Man,” December 2018] sounds far more interesting than his invented man, who sounds like a total bore.