In the case of my death, it was my birthday. I was racing from work to attend yet another horribly pretentious dinner party with the Greenes. Don and Nancy Greene were our neighbours to the west, but we didn’t operate as normal neighbours might. Or should, for that matter. We didn’t borrow sugar or lawn chairs or propane tanks. We didn’t cook extra food or bake extra cranberry-orange-cinnamon muffins to pass over the fence in goodwill.
We operated differently.
We operated inefficiently as one another’s social high-water-mark. If the Greenes purchased a new car, Alice demanded we follow suit. Typically something German, with the exception that it must be one or two models higher or with an added feature or luxury package. If the Greenes renovated their kitchen, Alice dug her hand deep into our cookie jar of available credit and updated ours as well, with superior stainless steel appliances and thicker, imported granite.
Granite flown over from some tiny Italian island.
The point is I was working a full-time job for nothing more than the financial means necessary to keep up with the Greenes, playing angel investor in a sickening game of social tennis whereby the wooden trellis separating our two properties might have well been constructed with black nylon netting and a solid white plastic strip. The manicured lawns on both sides of the fence only fully supported this metaphor.
Alice had long accepted the fact that she had married the wrong Luke, but that didn’t stop her from winding me up and demanding I play a supporting role in her epic social opus.
Eventually, I became toxic due to unsafe and prolonged levels of manipulation and verbal abuse. Recurring daydreams became the norm whereby customers were forced to enter my jewellery store in HAZMAT suits just to do business with me, eager to purchase my timepieces and high-quality diamonds but terrified that they might be exposed to my resentment radiation and fall victim themselves. Double over, vomit blood, and twitch while begging for a quicker death. I imagined the repercussions of my own death, the environmental disaster of my funeral where the government would be forced to bury my poisoned body hundreds of feet under the earth, inside a thick rubber bladder, so that my resentment wouldn’t seep into and contaminate the groundwater. In one daydream, they simply threw me in alongside used plutonium rods to ensure safekeeping.
Back to the Greenes.
One year, Nancy Greene bought a Christmas tree that brushed the top of their soaring fifteen-foot living room ceiling. Truthfully, it was the most spectacular Christmas tree I had ever laid eyes on. Perfectly trimmed and shaped, as if it were made from some high-end polymer. But nothing in their house was fake except Nancy’s breasts.
And nose. I had always suspected her chin, although that wasn’t verified until after my death. Nancy looked like the well-dressed, well-accessorized mannequin at Holt Renfrew had kicked out the storefront glass and marched down Bloor Street programmed to seek and destroy a gentle, hardworking man who might be willing to play the sport of social tennis. That man turned out to be Don Greene.
Back to the Christmas tree.
It was a storybook tree that Nancy had, of course, found herself. The fantastical tale she told of locating said tree lacked only the inclusion of unicorns and Sherpa leprechauns who spoke Old English … leading Nancy to her magnificent conifer. Nancy passionately explained that the majority of the ornaments were purchased from Swarovski, a high-end crystal retailer, and that she had hired a Christmas Tree Consultant to help her decorate the towering pine behemoth that now occupied the lion’s share of their living room.
“It was so darn difficult to track her down, she’s so in demand these days,” said Nancy. “But didn’t she work the lights and ornaments like a magician? Am I right, or am I right. Right? Exactly. ”
Alice and I stood in amazement.
Here’s the difference in our perspective: The amazement Alice was experiencing was due to increased, self-inflicted social pressure given the state of our current Christmas tree, dressed with family heirlooms and other antique ornaments handmade from blown glass. Our humble tree sported painted eggshells, God’s Eyes knit from wool, poorly died plastic icicles, and snowflakes made from paper cutouts. Each ornament was chock full of sentimental value and incapable of a price tag. However, when compared to Nancy’s Christmas Tree 2. 0, ours was truly an epic failure.
That was Alice’s perspective.
My amazement centred around the fact that there were Christmas Tree Consultants who charged people the equivalent of a mortgage payment. I felt burning in my throat. An antisocial comment was in the process of breaking out, and I did my best to swallow it, but it was coming up hot like a burp of acid reflux. A full sweat was broken into during my last-ditch efforts to contain it, but the comment had firmly taken root in my larynx, and this is what I blurted: “Nancy, why the hell did you spend all this money decorating something that’s in the process of dying?”
Nancy straightened up, at a loss for words.
Alice turned away.
And in walked Don Greene, as if on cue. He sauntered into the living room holding two fish-bowl-sized brandy snifters, and this is what he said: “Isn’t that all we are, good buddy? Two decorated Christmas Trees in the process of dying?”
Point — Don.
That level of candour for our respective situations was both admirable and entirely disgusting. In passing me my brandy, his triceps muscle revealed itself from underneath his form-fitting cashmere sweater. Athletic, yes, and he was always impeccably dressed. Don looked like a well-groomed, real-life Ken doll, except for his battle with psoriasis.
With respect to Don’s wardrobe, Alice would always say, “Don, you look so sharp!”
Don would smile and say, “Oh, these old rags?” and then wink. The wink was there to denote his full understanding that the garments were the furthest from rags, and to thank her for noticing. This is also true: Don Greene finished seven out of ten sentences with a wink.
His stab at boyish teasing. vHis stab at charm. vSo often I wanted to thumb out that winking eye so it could no longer continue offending. Like hacking off the hands of a thief or something. Clothing aside, Don, like me, was nothing more than a financier in a game of social chess, and I didn’t want to be on the board at all. Was he the prick, the one meeting Alice in some godforsaken rent-by-the-hour motel after running club? The answer was always no in my mind. They found too much common ground chitchatting about fine wines and the new arrivals at Pottery Barn to be entangled in a raging affair.
Back to the Christmas tree.
Don looked up at their enormously gaudy tree and sighed, as if entirely impressed with the bedazzled blue spruce. Like a pharaoh looking upon a pyramid post-construction.
“Isn’t it something, Luke?” he said. “Isn’t it like Christmas was born here?”
I recall wanting to splinter his larynx into his vocal chords so that no more offensive upper-middle-class utterings would be possible. Of course, I’d never do that. Candidly, part of me admired Don for having the ability to turn off his brain and submit to Nancy’s dictatorship, as if he was a Darwinian mutation of modern man. It just seemed so much easier.
This was my reply: “It certainly does seem that Christmas was born here, Don,” and then we clinked fishbowls and drank. Rudely, I took down the extra old brandy in a single gulp.
“Hey, go easy on the top-shelf booze,” he said. I refused to acknowledge the comment. There was Nancy, in front of me, deep in the process of going over each Swarovski ornament, one by one, with Alice. Each new crystal drove a glistening spike into my wife’s paper-thin confidence. The burning question in my mind revolved around how Alice was going to respond to Nancy’s powerful cross-court winner of a Christmas tree.
Here’s how she did it: Lacking fifteen-foot ceilings of our own, Alice did the only thing she could to compete with Nancy Greene that particular Christmas. Days later, she purchased a second eight-foot tree, because two times eight made sixteen feet, and that was exactly one more foot of Christmas tree than Nancy had. We now had one tree for the living room, and one for the family room. Both were dressed in prohibitively expensive ornaments. Many of them, the Swarovski leftovers that Nancy had passed over in the store, were marked down as part of a clearance sale. Down came the family heirlooms from our original tree — wrapped, boxed, and taped up heavily, never to release the ghosts of Embarrassing Ornaments of Christmas past.
During this miserable period, I had rekindled my relationship with Death, and we became good pals again. This go-around he wasn’t nearly as feared, sitting back there behind my driver’s seat in all of this ugliness. We spoke often, which consisted of me attempting to make deals with him. Like clockwork, after a massive blow-up with Alice, I would adjust the rearview mirror, look him in the eye sockets, and make an offer for him to take me now.
“What’s it going to take, Death?” I would say.
Death would scratch the heavily rotted section of his face with the legs of his tarantula hand and then shake his head. His refusal to take me was horrible news. It meant the continuation of my relationship with Alice and the Greenes, an unaffordable tango, doable only because of the precarious wonder of credit.
All the while, Alice continued to reinvent her own coping mechanisms to deal with our terrible marriage. Alice’s identity and entire self-worth became what she wore, what she drove, what she lived in, what she drank, what she ate, and with whom and how often. Because of all that, she had established quite a name for herself in our neighbourhood as an impeccable host. Five-course meals. Artisan breads. Desserts made in small boutique shops that everyone remembered the names of except me. Polished silver. Crystal glasses and decanters. Pressed linen tablecloths. Silk napkins. It was five-star every time company was seated, and when (on occasion) we happened to be the guests, she always brought the finest wine.
“It’s from Napa,” she would say. “It’s out of this world. You are going to just die. ”
Three out of seven days of the week warranted some form of dinner or cocktail gathering, and the subject of conversations was always this: other people’s kids.
What they were up to.
The cost of their schools.
And the myriad verbs that defined their infinite cuteness. Every story ended with, “They just grow up so fast,” and everyone listening would nod and say, “It’s so true, isn’t it?”
Then everyone would drink, as if to reminisce.
But I wouldn’t agree.
I did, however, participate in the group drink portion of the conversation. A hefty pull on my Scotch, as if happiness were somewhere near the bottom of the glass, and I were drowning in an attempt to get there.
For Alice, talking about other people’s kids provided some form of anesthetic due to the fact we had none to speak of ourselves. It was an emerging social requirement to add to the checklist. Despite the fact that she wholly detested and held an unhealthy amount of resentment toward me, she did attempt to get pregnant from time to time. Which, of course, wreaked havoc on my theory of infidelity. Why further anchor yourself to someone you loath except to keep up appearances? Perhaps this guy on the side was supposed to set up camp and live exclusively in the shadows of her life, existing only between the hours of eight and ten, a few days a week. Something to be used, cleaned, and put away until next time, like a rowing machine. Regardless, I had been called upon to play husband and perform the simplest of nature’s tasks. However, no luck. The strip was always one single line and not two.
This seemed to be my fault.
No, we didn’t bother asking science to definitively make a ruling on the matter. It was simply easier if it was my fault, and I would say nothing when she blamed it on the cut of my underwear, or my penchant for wearing that underwear to bed, or the shape of the seat on my cycling machine in the basement, or that I really didn’t want to have kids, which was negatively affecting the physical integrity of sperm.
“I bet that’s it,” she would say to me. “Isn’t it? Your negative thinking and not wanting children is making your sperm retarded. They’ve lost their natural GPS and can’t find the fucking egg! I need this, Luke. It’s the least you can give me. ”What was I left to do but stand and stare?
Void of any intelligent or witty comeback, as if an alien had crash-landed on my property and was standing in my designer kitchen, cooking poached eggs in a Pottery Barn apron and attempting to communicate with me. And there I stood, frozen in her tractor beam of nonsense.
The truth is this: the thought of having kids with Alice and having intercourse with Alice became equally as terrifying. Both would result in orders being barked in my direction, followed by an error of the grandest scale on my part, and ultimately, wearing the blame for an improper turnout. On several occasions, I thought I would rather die than have a child with Alice. I’m not sure if this particular plea with Death caused it to happen, but here’s how my life came to an abrupt end.
Rushing to my forced birthday party with the Greenes caused me to travel a handful of kilometres-per-hour faster than the law deemed appropriate. Rushing, the sin of lost perspective, landed my car smack-dab in the middle of an intersection a several seconds earlier than it would otherwise have been, which allowed for the perfect timing of a complete stranger fumbling with his cell phone to run a red light and hitting me square in the driver’s-side door.
An explosion on impact accompanied by the unwilling whine of twisting metal. Steel and glass having breached many sections of me. You’d think after an impact like that the lights go out, but I had several moments of lucid thought.
In those final moments, I imagined Alice drinking the fabulous wine from Napa with the Greenes, checking her Cartier automatic timepiece with 1. 77 carats worth of excellently cut VVS-1, F coloured diamonds spread out along the bezel, apologizing for my tardiness and lack of manners.
“I can’t believe he’s doing this,” I imagined her saying. “Who is late for their own birthday party? It’s so typical. It’s so embarrassing. ”
Sitting there in my all of my dying, I flashed back to the week before — my mother hugging me desperately after my weekly visit for tea and a game of gin rummy. She pulled me in tight on the weathered veranda and whispered, “They’ve got it all wrong, Luke. You’re the catch. Not her. That’s the truth of the matter. Try to remember that. ”
She kissed my cheek and rubbed my back, as if I was terminally ill and she was doing her best to heal what remained of me. At this point, with only moments of life to spare, my frantic mind went to Diana-of-no-last-name, fast-forwarding through the greatest day of my life. I felt a smile adorn my dripping, broken face.
What I had finally recognized was true love.
Not love with asterisks.
Not love in sheep’s clothing.
I loved her.
I loved Diana-of-no-last-name.
And my canvas, my self-portrait, began to straighten up. The splintered wood frame pulled itself together, became strong and cohesive, and the angles were ninety degrees again. The shredded canvas stitched itself together, and the red wash dripped off, revealing the choppy strokes of a palate knife, and I could almost make out a face.
And that heart or face or whatever looked happy.
And that was it.
I died on my birthday in the process of falling in love.
The next thing I knew, I was standing in the Post-Death Line, waiting to meet the Bookkeeper.