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Readings — From the July 2019 issue

Something True

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From his novel Turbulence, published this month by Scribner.

She woke to the dim stillness of the cabin. This had already happened several times, and each time what she had experienced was less like sleep than like an odd discontinuity in her presence in the world. She woke to the dim stillness of the cabin. Stillness, not silence. There was the sound of the engines—an unvarying sound like a large waterfall somewhere nearby—that muted all other sounds so that it seemed as if she had stuffing in her ears. It was night and the main lights were switched off. Stretched out on her nearly flat bed, she was able to see, from where her head was, her neighbor’s screen. He was watching a film. The silent pictures troubled her—some people shouting at each other—and she shut her eyes again, and thought of the two weeks she had just spent in Seattle with her daughter, Wendy, and her family. They had left her tired, those two weeks, even though they hadn’t particu­larly done much. There had been some little outings—to the Japanese Garden, to the top of the Space Needle. There had been frequent visits to shopping malls and supermarkets. There had been time with the kids, picking them up from school and preparing meals. In Seattle, she had found herself able to forget the situation she was flying back to.

Last autumn she had had a health scare. It had turned out to be a false alarm. Still, it had frightened her. Even when the doctor told her she had nothing to worry about, she was obviously shaken, and, since it was the end of his working day, he had offered to take her for a drink. “You look like you could use one,” he had said. They went to the Conrad Hotel, which was near his office. It was pleasant enough. She didn’t expect to hear from him again. Then the following week he had invited her to an exhibition of Buddhist sculpture—the subject of this exhibition had been mentioned over their drink, and they seemed to have a shared enthusiasm for it. That was when she first knew that something was happening, the way her heart quickened when she saw that SMS. She told herself that she was a sixty-year-old married woman, that it was absurd for her to feel that kind of excitement over an invitation to an art exhibition, issued in the form of a text message with a link to the exhibition website. The fact was, it felt unmistakably like a date, something neither of them acknowledged when it took place—which it did, after she had spent some days going through the motions of wondering whether to accept the invitation. After that they met a few more times—they went to see films and exhibitions, and then had lunch or a drink.

When she told her husband that she was in love with someone else, he stared at her as if he was literally unable to believe what she had just said.

“Who?” he finally asked.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said.

“I don’t understand,” he said.

“Neither do I,” she said. They sat there for a long time in silence. They had been married for nearly forty years, and nothing like this had ever happened. There was a feeling, apart from anything else, that it was late in the day for this sort of thing. There was also a feeling of desolation.

“I had to tell you,” she said. “We’ve never hidden things from each other.”

“Thank you,” he said.

There was another long desolate silence.

He said, “So . . . so you love him?”

“Yes,” she said, without hesitation.

“What happens now?” he asked.

“I don’t know.”

“What do you want?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” she said again. Though that wasn’t true—she knew that she wanted the doctor, who was the only thing she thought about from the moment she woke up in the morning until the moment she finally fell asleep at night.

Her husband sighed.

Strangely, their life went on outwardly as normal for a while after that, though with a kind of silence at the heart of it.

She opened her eyes—the localized lights and silhouettes of the Delta first-class cabin, the shapes of the seats, or pods they were more like, with their semiprivate, semi-enclosed spaces. She adjusted her position. Her neighbor’s screen was still showing the same film. Her own showed a map of their progress—they were eight hours into the flight, and far out over an ocean of unimaginable size. On the map the plane was marked by a plane-shaped symbol that would be, if it were to scale, about a thousand kilometers long. In fact it was hard to understand quite what an insignificant speck this airplane was, in terms of the size of the ocean it was flying over, in terms of the quantity of emptiness that surrounded it on all sides.

In February the doctor had tried to persuade her to spend a night or two away with him. He had suggested Hainan Island, he said he knew some nice places near the sea. That they would sleep together there wasn’t explicitly the idea—they had still hardly touched each other—though they both understood that was probably what would happen. He was more than ten years younger than her and unmarried. When she told him that she was in love with him he had, after a short pause, taken her hand. She had let him take it. Her hand felt hot and damp in his. That was when he first suggested the trip to Hainan. She had said she would think about it.

While she was wondering whether to go to Hainan Island with the doctor, her husband said to her one day, “You have to decide what you want.”

“What do you want?” she asked him.

“I want you,” he said.

“I’m going to Hainan Island next weekend,” she said. “Okay,” he said, and his eyes filled with tears. His quiet acceptance of the situation was mature and fully acknowledged her autonomy as an individual, and she despised him for it.

She didn’t know what he should have done.

Nothing, she thought, would have prevented her from going to Hainan Island at that point—it seemed more important than anything else in her life, and worth whatever price life might exact for it.

They went one weekend in early March. The hotel was near the sea—the windows of their suite looked onto the ocean. They walked along the sand, the tall surf battering blindly away at the shore.

On the very southern tip of the island, on some wave-lashed rocks, they found a rough brown stone on which was inscribed, in two Chinese characters: “the end of the civilized world.”

The day she got back from Hainan, that Sunday evening, her husband said again, “You have to decide what you want.”

She had just stepped into the flat, straight from the airport, the Hainan Airlines luggage tag still on her suitcase. He was sitting there in his pajamas. He didn’t look well. He had lost weight, and had stopped shaving every day. And he hadn’t been sleeping well—they still slept next to each other, everything was still outwardly the same.

“Okay,” she said.

She had a shower and then told him that she was planning to visit their daughter in Seattle for two weeks. When she came back, she said, she would have made a decision.

The map on her screen showed that the plane was flying south now, over the far eastern peninsulas of Russia, toward Japan. In less than five hours it would land in Hong Kong.

It wasn’t so much a matter of deciding between her husband and the doctor. It was a matter of deciding whether the fact that she had fallen overwhelmingly in love with the doctor somehow in itself annulled her marriage. Once, when they were much younger, she had loved her husband in something like the way she loved the doctor now. She hadn’t thought she would ever love anyone else like that. And now there was the doctor. And it seemed obvious that just as she had stopped loving her husband like that, she would in time stop loving the doctor in that way too. That was the difference—she knew that now. She wouldn’t love the doctor in this way forever, so she shouldn’t do anything predicated on the idea that she would. And she didn’t intend to. Was that maturity? Was it wisdom? Whatever it was, the question insisted on an answer—did the fact that she had fallen in love with the doctor somehow in itself annul her marriage? Did it make it somehow untrue? She did not want to live with something untrue.

Her flight from Seattle landed just after eight in the morning. She took a taxi to the flat, which was in the Mid-Levels, not far from the university where she worked. Her husband was at home. She had not doubted that he would be. When she arrived, he was sitting at the kitchen table in his white squash clothes—he had just returned from his weekly session at the club and still smelled faintly of the sweat he had expended. He was eating fruit salad. She took off her jacket and sat down at the table with him. There were pleasantries, and then some small talk about how things had been in the States, about Wendy and the kids—they hadn’t spoken on the phone even once while she was there. When they had dealt with all that, he stood up to make some more coffee and she said, “I don’t want to live with something that isn’t true.”

“What do you mean?” he asked, sitting down again.

“I mean that I don’t want to live a life that isn’t true. Where we’re just going through the motions.”

“I don’t either,” he said.

He looked nice, in his whites. She found herself looking at him as if he were a stranger, someone she didn’t know and was seeing for the first time. And in a sense he had become a stranger to her over the past ten weeks. This shift in perspective took her slightly by surprise, the way he seemed positively attractive now, as a sort of stranger in his sweaty shirt, with his lean muscles, and his intelligent eyes, which were trained on her, trying to perceive what it was that she intended or hoped for from this talk. Which in fact was still not entirely obvious to her, though his sudden sexiness—which seemed to have something to do with his now being this semi-stranger with whom things might develop in any number of ways, which after all was what the situation truly was, and always had been—was starting to move things in a particular direction. He felt this and took her hand. She let him do that, as she had let the doctor do it that afternoon when she told him she loved him. As it had that afternoon, her hand felt hot and damp. And as the doctor had that afternoon, he leaned towards her and kissed her mouth, and she let him do that as well. She put her hands on his skin, inside his shirt, and then he was pulling her underwear down to her knees, and there on the kitchen table that morning they tried again to make something true.

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