The Lesson

Pretending not to notice Bryan’s approach, I turned the page on the novel I was reading. Bryan loved to make an entrance, and I didn’t want to disappoint him. In truth, I didn’t care. Across the crowded terminal a young girl squawked like a bird, excited to see a pair of friends. The three girls embraced and squealed. Nearby, a pair of toddlers wandered aimlessly and apparently unsupervised, stopping at times to investigate the occasional piece of litter or luggage.

“If there were only one penny in the world, it would be worth a fortune, yes?” Bryan, almost from beyond earshot.

“Yeah. I guess so.” I prepared myself for the latest tirade. Bryan was a teacher’s assistant as well as an artist. He believed that his gift was the ability to make others aware. I just thought he was tiresome and irritating.

The Lesson

“But there are millions of them. How much is the penny worth?”

“One cent,” I said, with a voice full of disinterest. I was in no mood to hear the lecture.

“No. Less. i’d heard It actually costs more than one cent to create a penny,” Bryan said, earnestly looking in his coat pocket for – I assumed – a penny to further enhance this lesson. “Anyway,” he extracted an empty hand from his coat, “that’s not the point.”

“And what is the point?” Once he’d begun, I’d learned long ago, there was no stopping a Bryan tirade. I wanted this to take it’s course as quickly as possible.

“There are five billion people on the planet. How much is a human life worth?”

“I don’t know. A penny. A million pennies. Five billion. What does it matter?” I thought about a beautiful woman, peacefully asleep on her bathroom floor. How much is a human life worth? A pill? A million pills?

“It matters. With that many lives, each of our individual lives decreases in value. We’ve procreated ourselves out of importance.”

“..And into self-importance, from what I’m hearing,” I added irritably. “Let’s get a cab. I’m sick of being here.”

I was amazed at my behaviour. There were no waves of sorrow. There was only anger and intolerance. Bryan had gotten the message. He said nothing further as we walked toward the taxi stand.

.

We sat in the cab, accompanied by the chatter on the dispatch radio. The city air was cool and gritty, and the taxi smelled of sweat and vinyl. I thought about making small talk, but instead focused my attention on the car ahead of our taxi, a light grey Volvo, with battered rear bumper and paint yellowing with age. The driver, a small, balding man with narrow shoulders, was slouched behind the wheel. I tried to invoke some sort of sadness for her, but once again, found nothing. It was Tuesday. Traffic was light, but unorganized, and all the cars inched toward the highway access ramp.

“Annette’s dead,” Bryan blurted out.

“I know. I saw the ambulance leaving last night, on my way home.” The paramedic had told me that she’d taken some pills. They had found her on her bathroom floor. Nothing. No sadness. Just a bitter hatred. I hated Bryan. He’d killed her with his indifference. He’d obviously driven her to that desperate act. I hated him, and I wanted him to tell me what he’d done.

I sat there. My words hung in the stale air of the taxicab. I looked out the window again. the bald man had apparently turned on his car radio, because his antenna telescoped and swayed, even though there was no breeze. I knew Bryan. He was stifling on his guilt. He wanted to talk. The bald man had two child seats in the back seat of his car. The larger one was decorated with pink dinosaurs. Brontosauruses.

— —

Annette and I spent Sundays together. We were like an old married couple. I would bring her the paper on Sunday mornings, and she’d meet me at the door with a cup of Chamomile tea. We’d spend most of the day on her day bed. Annette fancied her rituals. She started with the Style section, then Local News, then the Front Page. By midday, she’d be asking me for clues to the puzzles. I would absently look up from my novel and offer whatever help I could. Evening would find us watching television until Bryan arrived from his studio. I would politely take my leave, likely not to see either of them until sometime in the week, usually on campus.

On the streetside, near Annette’s house, a small dog lay dead, slowly decaying, but still well preserved in the sterile winter air. The unfortunate creature was hit by a truck in the first days of December. The next day, it snowed heavily. As the weeks went by, the corpse thawed, slowly revealing a grotesque animal, mouth and eyes open, chin turned to the sky, paws curled, neck broken. It seemed to be lost and bewildered, almost in supplication to an unseen god, trying to understand its fate.

For weeks, I was obliged to walk past this ghastly sight. Each time, I would try in vain to look away. By the time I reached Annette’s door, I would find myself in shock and revulsion, disgust and fascination.

As I had done on the other Sunday mornings, I showed up at her doorstep with the newspaper. Annette opened the door slowly, as if she were intending to surprise me. Her face was ashen, and covered with a sheen of perspiration. Her hair was untidy. I was surprised.

“You look like hell! Are you okay?” I silently flinched at my own tactlessness.

“Just a little queasy, sweetie. C’mon in. I promise not to throw up on you.” She took the newspaper from me, tossed it on the day-bed, then gestured for an embrace.

“God bless you,” I said blandly. Her body felt quite warm as I held her. As usual, Annette smelled of sandalwood. I was quite sure she had a fever.

“Well, don’t worry; what I have isn’t contagious,” she bubbled. “Tea’s on, but you’ll have to fetch it yourself while I clean up.” Annette padded into her bathroom. I turned toward the kitchen. The kettle had begun to whistle.

.

I stirred as she slid her arm across my wrist. The telephone was ringing. I looked up to see her shoving the newspaper toward the wall with her left hand as she reached for the phone with her right. Still on her stomach, Annette bounced, and her torso landed across my forearms and the book I was reading. As she slid in front of me, I was obliged to pull myself forward, both to allow her to reach the phone and to stop her from falling off the day-bed. As she moved back, telephone in hand, she turned her head and caught me smelling her hair. She seemed confused at first, as if, in her mind, our contact was an altogether innocent occurrence. For that instant, Annette was a little girl. She must have seen something similar in my face, because she flashed the most debauched smile I’d ever seen, and with that, she became a woman again.

I heard a murmur from the handset, and the movement of my eyes reminded her that she was holding the telephone. She put the phone to her ear and rolled over, turning her back to me. “Hi, sweetie”, she purred. I made a move to leave the day-bed. She needed privacy, and I was in no mood to listen to her carry on with Bryan. She rolled back quickly and placed her palm on the small of my back. I turned back and saw her face. She mouthed the word “no” with her wonderful lips. I looked in her eyes, but saw nothing there. Slightly annoyed and embarrassed, I settled back next to her. I reached the floor with my right hand and found my book. The pages were crumpled and torn, and I attempted to occupy myself by smoothing the paper.

And so I lay there, wanting to tell her I loved her. I knew better, of course. Sometimes, she would talk about her past, in which, usually, someone would confess his devotion to her. Bryan was no different. She had never reciprocated. Maybe she wasn’t capable. What is love itself worth, I would wonder, if everyone professed it to you? And so, I lay there, in my silence and my desperation.

I thought of sandalwood and smoke- Annette’s hair. I could still feel the texture of the fine hairs on her arm, as well as the heat of her body. The words on the broken pages had lost all meaning. I stared intently, struggling to block her conversation.

— —

The taxi stopped in front of Annette’s house. She had been renting the place for the semester. Bryan was here to remove his belongings. Her family wouldn’t be here for another day or so. The cab driver sighed as Bryan gave him a bunch of bills. Without a word to us, he began to play with the knobs on the radio.

“Gods, it’s still here,” Bryan half-laughed, gesturing toward the frozen dog as he stepped from the taxi, “Don’t they clean these streets at all?”

I pretended not to hear. The taxi began to move before I could properly swing the door. I was not sure if it closed at all, but the driver apparently didn’t care. I turned and looked at Annette’s front door. I would have no reason to knock there again. I’d have no reason to walk past the frozen dog again. No reason to find myself repulsed and fascinated by that gruesome death-pose.

I silently began to panic. I would never see her again. She had been taken from me. I felt myself about to go mad with rage and despair. I put my hands to my head, still focused on that door.

“She finally told me she loved me,” Bryan stood, staring at his shoes. His voice and manner now were uncharacteristic, and I was not sure if he was sincere. He looked me in the eyes, now. “You know she was pregnant, right?”

“She didn’t tell me, but, yeah,” I said. I became annoyed at what I thought was to follow. I didn’t want to know how careful they were, what precautions they took. I liked Bryan well enough, but I never thought he deserved her.

“I wonder if that was it. I wondered if she really loved me, or if she was in love with the baby growing inside her.” He paused, looking at the front door, keys in hand. “I told her I didn’t want a kid. I don’t know why.”

“And when you told her this,” I finished for him, “she couldn’t take it.”

“She said I was selfish. She didn’t know,” He muttered, “..she didn’t know that I couldn’t trust her feelings for me. I did love her, though. Truly.”

“Maybe she felt the same way you did,” I said. “Maybe she didn’t trust your feelings, either. Maybe she needed something to prove to herself that you were sincere.”

“Then I guess I didn’t pass that test, huh?”

“If you still think of it as a test, then I guess not.” I could feel a bitterness rising again. I didn’t want to attack Bryan, so I retreated to silence. This was neither the time nor place, I figured, and maybe he was sincere. Maybe he’d learned something. Bryan, the enduring teacher, taught a lesson, and a life was sacrificed to make a simple point.

I heard the soft clink of the keys in his hand. I turned, stepping over the frozen carcass, and walked away.

I left the house in silence that day. I walked in the brisk winter air, quietly and quickly to my apartment. I never spoke to Bryan again. I didn’t go to Annette’s funeral, either. I tried to tell myself that it was because I was overcome by grief. In reality, I guess I didn’t care. In the end, I may have proved to myself that Bryan was right. If he was right, though, then what is the value of a human life?

(this story was featured in {fray} in 7/2003)