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Sheila lies on top of me, snoring, her heavy breasts heavy on my chest, her stomach on my stomach, her hair damp in the afternoon heat, a shard of light through the white shutters she closes when we make love, the slow beat of the overhead fan, the tiny sound of a radio from the street. I too am falling asleep.
I fly above mountains, dizzy, frightened. Someone's arm slides across my face. What? What? An hour has passed, maybe two. I sit up on the silk rug, sweaty. In slow motion, Sheila kisses the back of my neck, stands, and stretches.
"I like it here, with the books," she says and yawns. "I always have. Have you read them all? I'll bet most of them are for show." Grinning at me, she takes a long sip from the wineglass on the bookshelf. I watch the amber liquid swirl slowly around her lips, I stare at her body, creamy and white. She is not unattractive in her middle-aged nakedness, and I think that I may even love her, but I am ready for her to leave. There is a certain book I want to finish.
Still completely naked, she saunters into the kitchen and comes back to the study with the portable TV, turns it on. Click. We are watching a commercial about deodorant, then a news broadcast of some hurricane in Honduras. Hundreds of men and women huddle beside crude shelters, children play in the mud. Trucks unload food and medical supplies.
"I'm going to send them a donation," says Sheila.
"CARE. Oxfam. You should too."
What can I say to Sheila? I am still half asleep, limp from our lovemaking, unprepared even to look out the window. As I rub the sleep from my eyes, I am tempted to turn off the TV.
The truth is, I feel no connection to the faces on the screen. The Hondurans are just so many electronic pixels. I've decided that has been the great achievement of our age: to so thoroughly flood the planet with megabits that every image and fact has become a digitized disembodied nothingness. With magnificent determination, our species has advanced from Stone Age to Industrial Revolution to Digital Emptiness. We've become weightless, in the bad sense of the word.
The Honduran women in their earth-colored shawls, the vacant-eyed men wearing their lopsided straw hats, are nothing more than bits on the screen, surges of electrical current, evaporations. I wish Sheila had never turned on the TV. I'd like to drift back to sleep, or read.
Sheila has been somewhere upstairs, rambling around in one of the rooms, and casually descends the long spiral staircase. She's put on a blouse but cleverly left it unbuttoned. "I'm going to send a donation." She raises one eyebrow at me, almost imperceptibly, waiting for me to say something or do something. I recognize this minute gesture as once belonging to my ex-wife. It was a sign that I was not paying attention. Unexpectedly, I find myself missing that little prod.
"You can afford more than I can, Charles," she says.
"Right." She is definitely trying to pick a fight. Could she be bored?
"Oxfam has an 800 number where you can use your credit card," she says. "Or you can write a check. To the Honduran Hurricane Relief Fund. I'm going to write a check."
"Go ahead," I say.
Sheila looks surprisingly sexy with the unbuttoned blouse. Her body is real, her body is not a digitized bit, it has weight and it's twelve inches away. I reach for her breasts.
She takes a step back. "Don't act like a shit," she says.
I don't feel like a shit. I've thought about these things. Just the other day I was reading some article about the relativity of values. I mention this because it applies directly to the question of the Honduran hurricane victims on TV. Even if they are not mere electronic data points, those people are not nearly as bad off as they seem. Because well-being and need are purely relative concepts. There is no such thing as poverty in itself, suffering in itself, unhappiness in itself. All is relative. Galileo, the physicist, was the first person to understand this idea. Absolute motion is unobservable. Only the relative motion between two objects has any meaning.
The great painters also grasped the point: the eye responds only to relative lights and darks. Look at the pictures of Corot, for example Landscape with Lake and Boatman or Château Thierry. Look at the works of John Singer Sargent and Frederick Edwin Church. A dark region of canvas is dark only by virtue of being juxtaposed against a lighter region. Or consider colors. For years painters and photographers have known that the value of a color is perceived only in its relation to other colors around it. With the proper background, a green can appear brown, or a blue red.
According to whoever wrote the magazine article, and I cannot remember his or her name, it is only common sense to extend the argument to human contentment. Human beings consider themselves satisfied only compared to some other condition. A man who has owned nothing but a bicycle all of his life feels suddenly wealthy the moment he buys an automobile. For a few days he will drive his new car slowly through the neighborhood for people to gawk at, he will race his machine on the highway, he will lovingly polish the hubcaps until he can see his face in reflection. But this happy sensation soon wears off. After a while the car becomes just another thing that he owns. Moreover, when his neighbor next door buys two cars, in an instant our man feels wretchedly poor and deprived.
Now I think again of the Honduran hurricane victims, and at this point I admit that I am extrapolating the argument on my own, beyond what he or she wrote in the article. Who is to say that the Hondurans are needy or unhappy? Needy and unhappy relative to what? The fact is, they are probably not accustomed to having much. Aren't the Honduran children laughing as they play in the mud? To me, they look pleased as punch. Very likely they have what they need. Leave them alone. I can't decide what other people need, only what I need myself. But I'm losing the thread of my argument.
"Charles, I can see you thinking again," says Sheila as she applies dark red lipstick, using her little finger. "You're always thinking. It's not good for you."
I write a check for fifteen dollars to the Honduran Hurricane Relief Fund and turn off the TV. Done.
Now we're eating ice cream, peppermint. Peppermint is my favorite, but I also stock plenty of pistachio and chocolate almond. Between bites Sheila draws on a cigarette and exhales in long silver strands. She wants to talk about a movie she saw last week, some romantic French thing directed by Jean Doumer. Although I go to the movies frequently myself, I haven't seen Sheila's film and can only nod while she talks. She leaves to get a second bowl of ice cream from the kitchen, I hear the fridge open and close, a spoon clinks on the counter. The movie will be playing for another few weeks, she says. Would I like to go with her Friday night? She wouldn't mind seeing it again.
For some reason I now recover the thread of the argument I was making before. The real point is this: I have come to understand my own modest needs and aspirations. More importantly, I have descended to the level I deserve. In the morning, before getting dressed, I stand on my porch in my pajamas for a few minutes and smell the new day before it slips through my fingers. I eat my two poached eggs (which I cook myself) and my dry piece of toast. I drink my cup of coffee made in my dripomatic machine, two spoonfuls of milk, no sugar. On weekdays I bicycle to my leafy little college, where I teach my morning classes. I make a few phone calls, meet a few students. In midafternoon I cycle home, past the well-tended gardens, the mailboxes on cedar posts, the two-story houses with their garages. Then I am home, in my own two-story house.
Actually, not my house. A small-college professor, living as I do on a small-college professor's pittance, couldn't afford this house by a mile. My ex-wife bought the house, then left it to me upon her departure. One of my less pleasant colleagues once sniffed at me: "Not all of us are lucky enough to have wives who leave us such splendid houses when they divorce us." And I answered, "It doesn't bother me one bit, partner. Perhaps you'll have better luck yourself the next time around." Barbara knew exactly what she was doing. When we split up, she took only a little porcelain bottle that we'd gotten together in New York. Left me the house, the car, all of the furniture, even her clothes. She should have taken her goddamned stuff. She should have taken the house. She got her revenge.
So I cycle through the neighborhood of successful lawyers and doctors and bankers, arrive home, and grade juvenile papers. In the late afternoon, I fix myself a drink, take out a book, sit in my chair. After dinner I work on one of my five-thousand-piece jigsaw puzzles of the countryside of France. Some evenings I don't feel like working on a puzzle.
Wouldn't my life be ridiculously extravagant to a Honduran, flood victim or not? Of course. The main thing is: I don't want to be disturbed. I have made sacrifices for this effete life of mine, at least relatively speaking, and I am comfortable. Do I lead the life of a selfish shit? So be it. I am content in my shithood.
"Are you going to your college reunion thing?" asks Sheila. She is putting away her monogrammed cigarette case. "When is it? Isn't it in two weekends, on the sixth?"
"Yes. Will you go with me?" I realize now that for at least the last month I have been hoping Sheila will go with me. I went to my twentieth reunion alone, just after my divorce, and it was murderous. Everyone was paired up with wives and girlfriends. Guys from all over the country who haven't seen each other for twenty years, haven't stayed in touch, don't have any particular fondness for one another, crammed together for a weekend and acting like family. Then I skipped the twenty-fifth, the big one, the one where everyone talks about their place in the world. Out of the blue, I have decided to go to the thirtieth, all of us now in our fifties, balding, becoming farsighted, jowls beginning to sag, the precise knifeblade in time when we have accomplished much of what we are going to accomplish in life and are just beginning to stare at the black pit waiting for us at the other end. Why have I decided to go? I don't know. I don't know. But I am comfortable, I will say to my classmates, extremely comfortable. I don't want to be disturbed.
"I can't go with you," Sheila says. "Why don't you ask Emily?"
"Emily doesn't like to go on trips with me. She says that she feels like a child when we go on trips together. I probably won't see Emily until she comes home next Thanksgiving. Maybe not even then. Maybe she'll spend Thanksgiving with Barbara."
"I wish I could go with you. But I've got a client meeting that weekend."
"Please go with me."
She hesitates. "Maybe I can reschedule the appointment." She looks at me sympathetically from across the room. But she has hesitated a few seconds too long, and I can tell that she doesn't want to go.
"No," I say, "don't reschedule your appointment. It's all right." Why can't people be honest with each other? I am not being honest either.