j o s h u a    k l e i n b e r g

Reasonably Happy

 

It's not a cancer story. She made him swear he wasn't going to just turn her to some cancer story. "The cancer story." Every author had at least one, often two or more, but this isn't one. It's a story wherein the moments of attention were not, any longer, to silently praise her—for beauty, though he wouldn't have put it like that. Her breasts are not pretty in the story. Not even in a sad way. Not even impeccably grotesque. He watched her shrink and shiver on the bathroom floor, the mosaic tiles pressing 1"x 1" grids in special spots on her forehead. He watched it awkwardly, like a child watches a bug he's bisected, eggs bobbling out from the guts in little microbes. Like a child who knows what he's done, he watched her, though he hadn't anything but an awkward sort of pity and he didn't blame himself. He supposed he fell out of love with her—a mechanism, he supposed. He tried not to think about it and to be as good to her as he could. He needed this: to feel good about how he'd handled it.


He wanted you to know it's not a leukemia story. And he didn't particularly fail her, at least not in any interesting ways. He was not without grouchiness, however, and did once wonder if he had dropped the wine glass on purpose. It's the story she asked for: about how she got a little daffy for a while before she died. She would wake and bake, but had never been that type. She was laughing and crying more often, over everything. He wasn't working at the time, but had to start when she lost all the weight; they'd been living on her savings. It was good for him, though, to get out of the house and the hospital room with its 24 television channels and the plasticky curtains.


She'd once been a model. She'd once made 32 grand in six weeks. They'd flown her to the Phillipines and sent little Filipino twinks, like Dobermans, to guss her up. She'd told him that story the second time they ever slept together in the Gershwin Hotel. The Warhols were apparently legit there, but it wasn't as expensive as he expected it to be, even after they charged him for a stain they supposedly found. For years, he'd find the hotel's promotional pens around the house. He wouldn't use them. He'd just leave them where they were and accidentally recall the vomit tumbling from her: in flat packs, like slabs of meat, or drearily—just leaking like thin soup from her mouth. It's not a grotesque, though. He's not going to tell you what it all smelled like, what she started to smell like. And it's not about the love, exactly.


They'd voted for Gore together and wished they had done it in Florida, where her parents lived. They'd had a peaceful breakfast that morning. The light came in, at the diner, like bars of gold. He does not remember many more scenes from their life together. They'd watched the debates through that whole autumn, and she'd annoyed him with simple-minded comments. But that morning was good, a bit electric. They'd felt optimistic, reasonably happy about their prospects, and he'd enjoyed his corned beef hash. She told him she was sure he was headed for fame. She joked: "Al Gore's second inaugural poet." It was a joke that felt more like a token of love than a joke. He doubted she believed herself any more than the metaphysical poets did their own hyperbolic preaching about eternities together, but he appreciated her love, and sipped his coffee, feeling joyful about this love they might have, like a helpful phantom at the table.


She'd once been 18 feet tall, in Times Square, for Revlon. She had an "exotic" look, and fulfilled particular demographic marketing agendas; she was part-Dutch and part-Chilean. Her parents were persecuted under Pinochet and they both became professors to get out. Of course he loved her. He'd been a poor kid. He felt like a pauper around her, in part because he was much younger. He'd been poor but intelligent. He left Billings at sixteen, as soon as he was allowed, by state law, to drop out of high school. He traveled on railcars for a while, then more or less settled down in Boston, with her, did the BFA in publishing at Emerson in his thirties. He didn't feel like it taught him very much.


He'd wince at her on the floor getting ugly, and feel like he hadn't learned anything. He would force himself to watch her and empathize. He tried to love her, but he thought he probably didn't. He'd get sick with self-hatred.


At first, it looked like she'd beat it, but then one day, they realized she wouldn't. She looked like Susan Sarandon to him that day, but more darkly complected. He couldn't get it out of his mind—the stupid vulgarity of the pop culture analogue. It was the only talisman he could muster—her smile getting sadder and wiser the day she gave him permission to move on when he could.


He tried not to. He held her corpse until it was thoroughly rigid. He drank Evan Williams green label—nearly a case of it, over the course of a week without food—until he stank. And then he started with the meetings. They didn't save him—nothing saves you—but they were helpful.


They'd almost had a child together once, but she decided he wasn't ready—he really wasn't—and she took care of it before he found out. He came across a discretely worded invoice from a doctor's office, when he finally got out of the apartment they'd shared, only a few weeks after he'd buried her.


"God grant me, God grant me, God grant me," he said.


He named his first child—with his second wife, once the book came out and he'd been offered tenure, and they were ready—they named their first child Grant. He never once spoke to the kids about his first wife and only mentioned her grimly, in a clipped way, to his second wife, a few times. He'd be hammered and sobbing and take minutes between words. They'd wake up the next day and call off work, and stay silent in bed until evening. He wasn't sure if this love was a better love; it was certainly different, as they all are, he guessed.


It's not a story, though, about what he loses. He lives for seventeen hundred more years with her. They accumulate wealth, in both senses. She's a painter and she's smarter than he is. Their children are all wild—all six hundred thousand of them—but loving, and astute. And the apartment they share is this opulent loft they decorate themselves, chicly but timelessly. Through many eras and fashions, it hardly changes at all, but it's gorgeous, all polished ceramic and dark woods. The whole eastern wall is just glass. Over many generations, their children and their grandchildren become a sort of progressive religious tribe and truly admire their parents, who are honest and well-read and have taught them valuable lessons on living.


They die in bed together one morning—in a futuristic world we can't even comprehend yet. They are mingled like a braid, his arms hooked under hers near the ribcage, going stiff like that. Like another ribcage around her. The heavy-framed windows fall open simultaneously, with a single flat crash of their sills.


The sunrise spreads like a flame across their bodies. The air is gold.

 

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JOSHUA KLEINBERG was born in 1989 in South Florida and graduated from Ohio State University, where he was the recipient of an Academy of American Poets prize and the Jacobson Short Story Award. His work has appeared in H-ngm-n, Spork, The Southeast Review, Whiskey Island and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn and attends the MFA at Columbia University.


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