Another Way to Live

A magazine is open on an end table which bisects a row of uncomfortable black chairs lined against a wall, opposite the front desk, which is white, the color of cleanliness, and juts very slightly into the space between it and the two rows of seats that set back to back in the room’s center. Along the walls to the magazine’s left and right, opposite the seats in the office’s midpoint, each punctuated with a door from where its readers enter and head respectively, are also rows of the same black seats. Potted plants, a couple of ferns, are in two corners of the room, separating the rows of seats running along with walls.

Its first reader, who had arrived shortly before eleven-thirty a.m., had run an erect index finger across the nostrils of his nose once, then once more in the opposite direction, found the monthly facedown beneath another and thumbed to an article about an actress, its cover girl. She wore chaps that were suede and brown, blue jeans, the waistline of which was missing, a red polka dot shirt tied into a knot, exposing a navel dip, and brown cowboy hat that was being lifted from her come hither glare with a gun-barreled finger. On the article’s first page she was pictured atop a mechanical bull with a cutline of her saying “A sense of humor turns me on more than anything in the world.” On its third page she was pictured sitting on a bar, feet in tan cowboy boots atop two barstools, legs slightly spread, though from the angle of the viewer the object of interest remained a matter of imagination. On its fifth, final page—which the reader had only turned to when the nursed called his name, “Reed, Cary Reed,”—she was swaggering into the sunlit street through the saloon’s swinging doors.

Its second reader was interested differently than its first. He arrived slightly late, just after noon, shuffling his feet in the doorway, face to face with a lunchbreaking nurse. Orson picked up the magazine, randomly flipped pages led him to an article titled “Six Feats They Said Could Not be Done,” the sidebar of which featured Hillary, Bannister, and Armstrong, which he skimmed until his name was called. He moved through those dextral doors, down the pale white hallway, into the aseptic examination room, the familiar exam paper crumbling under his weight as it had before. His doctor was a middle-aged Jewish man of German lineage who intermittently sucked air through his clenched teeth and rarely moved his eyes from the computer screen until he had finished speaking. Orson was a detailer of the minutest details, and saw the physician’s jaws clench, nostrils flare involuntarily at the sight of him. He clicked his heels with resignation, thinking to himself what it would be like to die.

The clinician then behaved unexpectedly, leaning back somewhat in his tiny roller chair, taking a knee in both hands and looking his patient in the eyes as he spoke. “You’re fine. Of course, we confirmed what you learned from the at-home genetic test you took which is to say you do have—ah, I can’t recall the exact percentage right offhand—nevertheless, a genetic predisposition to the disease,” he said. At this he returned to nature, swiveling sideward to view Orson’s medical history, jabbing keys with his pointer fingers, and continuing his speech, “But this is something everyone, at least not as precisely as these percentages, but this should in no way affect you going forward. Everyone is predisposed to something, and numbers in any particular case can mean very little. Infirm seniors live in unvisited rooms until they’re ninety, marathoners with newborns die of heart attacks—”

“And thirty-year-olds are killed by horrible diseases,” interjected Orson.

“Yes, yes, that too,” the physician muttered, jerking his head upward in some sort of false start before returning his gaze to Orson. Miniscule pools of perspiration dotted the terrain of the doctor’s face. “That too, but as I was saying, this has no bearing on you. The risks are minimal, and you’re much too young to worry about it regardless.”

Orson assured the doctor his message had been received, he was no longer worried about the inherited time bomb quietly ticking within him, its possible detonation no longer a concern. But he left the examination room and the doctor’s office and the medical complex in which all of it was housed in the same manner he had arrived: acquiescent that any moment could bring the first symptoms, a stomach pain his malady’s opening remarks, a bloody movement the punch line to an inside joke. What dispirited Orson was not knowledge of that which could kill him, however; it was the inability to completely, permanently step from the train tracks if in the distance he could see the behemoth glittering at the skyline. It would come, he repeatedly told himself, it would come, its advance may be slowed, but it would come, someday.

Her eyes were a shade of olive which danced bluish-green in the right light, as they did that weekend in November, in a cottage near the Canadian border, watching the early snowfall through a fogging windowpane during their last autumn together. Miranda had foreshadowed the physician’s remarks with assurances of her own, given with a laywoman’s confidence, that absolutely nothing was wrong and a doctor’s visit would cure him of the thought. He wanted her to be right. With a swift turn of the head, he had captured her on occasion watching him as he considered the steady goose step of his enemy within. In his own reflection Orson had not seen such worry in his eyes, at least not for his mental state. He entered their apartment, lifting the door a bit to release it from its frame, walking over the threshold with an unbalanced first step. Miranda, on her knees in slacks but shirtless, with a beetle trapped beneath a glass, coaxing the prisoner and prison onto an angled sheet of paper, asked “How’d it go?” from behind a veil of cinnamon-colored hair. He answered well and she went to him, leaving the captive and its cell on the hardwood floor. Already a change had occurred within Orson, and between him and her and him and all others, subtle, considerable, unalterable in its course, the emergence of which he barely perceived. The knowable, however, was that all he held dear was assuming a different, still undefined place: faith, family, love—reexamined, rethought, reassessed. There was another way to live perhaps. She walked away, remembering the captive had to be freed, and he thought of the courses his life could take, the dull pain just above his tailbone, if the good life is possible, the muscles becoming even more pronounced in his lower abdomen, how he would react when his disease arrived, whether the fear of death abates before one is near his time, if Miranda would be his last….

The familiar clank and rattle of Orson’s weightlifting diminished in the months following his doctor’s visit. Three days a week, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, for more than a year he had gone through a regimen of bench presses, squats, deadlifts, curls, and lunges until his undefined frame had become the sinewy body he wanted, which he planned to utilize swimming or cycling or in some other newfound exercise. His diet also reverted to that of a previous man, with sweets and processed foods replacing the vegetables and lean meats that had supplanted them. But there was a difference: rather than returning to his previous size and shape, Orson was becoming larger than he had ever been, as though his body was capable of expanding in ways it was not before. His stomach, rounding and protruding for the first time in his life, now drooped over his beltline, his arms did not return to thinness but became formless and soft, as did his legs, and his face broadened a little, like a medicinal side effect. The final time he grasped a weight, a whim as he passed the bench and equipment, he called to Miranda, extended a dumbbell directly above his head thrice with each arm, then tired and stopped with an exhalation from his mouth and nose.

Orson’s change in temperament was to some extent as evident as his increasing bulk but lacking the clear formula of calories, activity, and body mass index, his sense of humor no grayer though the laughs fewer, his hobby unchanged but his attention reduced. Unfinished houses of cards were swept by Miranda into empty coffee canisters when a long enough interval between his starting and stalling had elapsed. He would at some point start again until wearying of the project, leaving incomplete castles and fire stations on the kitchen table, or bedroom desk, or empty stretches of floor. He emotionally, then mentally, preluding a final physical separation it seemed, left his work as well, completing the motions of accountancy with the unmoved air of a man who felt, perhaps not fully, that another life in this lived one awaited. His friends in the beginning viewed his transition with benign puzzlement, as when one glimpses somebody buying among their other items a single roll of toilet paper, but they too began to worry, joining Miranda’s loudening disquiet. Her unease culminated when the character of his libido transformed, its course deviating from that of orthodoxy, the sure-sure sign oddity and depression were harbingers for madness.

They suggested that Orson visit a therapist, someone with whom he could speak openly without the impediment of personal relations, a person it was implied who could figure out and fix their partner and friend. He resisted at the outset but yielded upon seeing their commitment to his doing so was resolute. For five sessions, he sat with his hands together and dangling between his legs, just beneath the downward slope of his belly, across from the balding, well-meaning gentleman with a boil on his neck, speaking reluctantly but earnestly when he did. But there was no sixth visit. He could humor the opinion his sanity was in doubt no longer. Orson knew foregoing more therapy was a rift in existence, dividing what was from what there would be, those eyes in which a thousand lights had nearly blinded his being and the reddened ojos yielding haltingly falling tears, though it must be done.

He thought of his decision less often as it steadily paced away from him, fewer moments intently focusing on that fissure in time, but on occasion a scene or sound would summon that past life, as happened during his next doctor’s visit, a little more than a year after his last. Changing into the patient’s gown, Orson saw the now familiar ocher streaks running about the russet wave of his torso, and everything passed through him: Miranda, his disease, what he had lost and gained. The examination bed squeaked beneath Orson’s weight, his legs dangled, his heels tapped repeatedly the contraption’s base. He then adjusted himself and reclined as comfortably as he could on the apparatus, angled as it was like the left stroke of a V. He remained certain he and his hidden adversary would someday meet, though he was now better prepared for the encounter. His fingers lightly struck his chest as though a saxophone were beneath his sternum. Orson shut his eyes and considered the ways in which his possibilities were limited and felt something resembling contentment: this life was more worthy of living than the one he had known before.