The Beginner's Guide to Living (4 page)

BOOK: The Beginner's Guide to Living
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I sliced it with the pizza cutter—too busy theorizing with Adam about what's best: classic crust or pan-fried. Arguing over pizza, now that's certainly a waste of life. So is picking fights, especially with bulldog barmen. He could've killed me. Maybe right now that's the kind of response I need to feel alive.

*   *   *

When I get home, after I've washed the city off me, I go online and do a little searching. Seneca was a Roman philosopher who died a slow and painful death at the whim of Emperor Nero. Nietzsche was a German philosopher who went mad. Not the best advertisements for philosophy, but so far it's the only thing I've got.

*   *   *

Over dinner I decide to try them. “If God's dead, who killed him?”

“Christ!” says Adam.

“Unlikely,” I say, biting into a chip.

Dad, through a mouthful of fish: “Who says God is dead?”



My first of my mother. I'm in my crib, half-awake, tangled in a sheet, and I can't find my way out. Everything is yellow. Her voice through the folds,
You're okay, Will
, her cool hands reaching in, easing me free. Her face altered by fear, her squeeze more suffocating than the sheet. But in her grasp, I relax, and no longer struggle to breathe.

*   *   *

Monday. Day 11. Alone again.

Dad's at work and Adam's out somewhere trying to wangle himself a high-paying job—he's decided to stay, ditch his career in Malaysia. So far he hasn't said why. I should be at school but Dad's letting me take time off. I seem to be the only one.

In my hand is my mother's camera. The back, where you open it to put the film, is like elephant skin. It's much heavier than Adam's digital that he bought on his way home. I run my finger over its forms, its division into rough and smooth, black and silver, plastic and glass. On the side of the viewfinder, there's a gold sticker with the word
barely visible, it's been handled so often. And there's the dent and its suggestion of guilt. I wipe dust off the glass of the frame counter, the white line pointing to the number
. Twenty-eight pictures contained in there still undeveloped.

The last ones my mother took.

*   *   *

I go past Degrazis' and the church. The sign's still there. The parking lot outside the supermarket is hectic, shiny cars lined up in the heat. It's too warm for September, the seasons in this city as impulsive as ever, not even a cloud to remind us it's spring.

“It will take a day to get the photos developed.” That's what the woman in the camera shop says as she picks off chunks of pink nail polish. One lands on my mother's film but I leave it with her anyway.

Out in the open again under a tree, I sit on a bench next to an old lady. The bags under her eyes are resting on her cheeks. She doesn't smile—maybe I've got too big. I take Mom's camera out of my backpack and load it with a new roll of film I found on the top shelf in our fridge where Mom keeps them. Kept them. The old woman's wearing a pale green cardigan even in this heat—she must be too old for weather—and her body is all curled in on itself. My mother would have taken a photograph of her if she could. Up close. That's the way she liked to look at people, at their most intimate. I don't think I could do that.

There's a fluffy white dog attached to a chair outside the café opposite, but no owner in sight. It's drinking out of a stainless steel bowl and there's a nicely distorted reflection but I can't think of a good reason to take a picture of a dog, of anything. Maybe it's too hot. I look over at the cars. Cars are not my thing, though there's an old green one the color of spearmint ice cream and it even has those tires with a white rim, a metallic beauty to it, headlights like eyes.

I step out into the sun, a season ahead of itself, and lift Mom's camera to my face; the car looks reduced through the lens. I bring the image into focus, the glint of the chrome, the fish-eyed reflection of the car next to it, the crisscross patterns of the lights.

The fender.

I hear the camera shutter clunk, the sound of a screeching brake, and feel the body of the camera shift. The fender is perfectly curved and it returns the light. Fender. The instrument of my mother's death.

*   *   *

Tuesday, I call the camera shop to see if my photos are ready—I ended up finishing the whole new roll. I pick them up, mine and Mom's, her last twenty-eight pictures. Every one intact.

*   *   *

Day 13.

We get another invite from Taryn's family—Adam's not coming; he's going out with friends again. I drive. On the way over Dad says, “When I met your mom she had long hair.”

“I know, I've seen the photo,” I say, checking his face for meaning, but his eyes are focused beyond the road. It's a color photo and the two of them are sitting on a log at a beach, their arms loose around each other's waists. All the other photos in the album are in black-and-white—Mom preferred to use black-and-white film—most are of Dad, or people I don't know. As always, close up.

“It suited her,” he says. “She should've kept it long.” His hand absently skirts the edge of my seat. “There are a lot of things we should've done.”

*   *   *

We eat kangaroo steaks cooked on the barbecue, medium rare—when I cut into mine, the blood pools on my plate. Dad turns his attention from Ray and Sandra to me; he's looking for something. “This is the first time we've eaten kangaroo, isn't it, Will?”

“Yes, Dad, it is.”

We all watch as he nudges a potato across his plate, but he's got nothing more to say. Ray starts up their conversation again as Taryn licks her fingers, her hair dipping in her food. We're at the groove end of the table. “So, did you like that CD?” she asks.

“It's not the kind of thing I usually listen to but it was all right.”

“Samara got me into Jeff Buckley.”

“Is she one of your sisters?”

“Yeah. She's in India but she's coming home soon. Won't stay long though, she never does.”

“Wouldn't mind taking off myself.”

“Where would you go?”

“Anywhere,” I say, putting down my fork.

“You're not hungry, are you?” whispers Taryn, running her finger along the groove I carved. It's already beginning to darken from exposure to the air.

“Not really.”

Dad looks up from his plate as Taryn stands. “Mom, I'm going to show Will the mandala.”

“Sure. I'll call you for dessert,” says Sandra, catching Taryn's hand as we go past. Eyes on me, Sandra goes to speak, but I keep moving. Their kitchen smells of spice, ours smells of lemons.

The backyard has paths meandering through frames with plants growing up them, past wooden seats, a pond with a concrete Buddha watching over it. The sun is low in the sky, tracing everything in orange, the scent of some flowers sickly sweet as we go past. “Night jasmine,” says Taryn, as she disappears behind a tree.

I follow her into an opening where she's pointing at her feet.

“We made it last time Samara was here.”

is a large circle, circles within circles, like a zodiac. I crouch down and touch it.

“It's mostly tiles, some we painted, some we fired ourselves,” she says proudly. “We've got a kiln near the shed.”

Her face is golden in the sinking light. She's all gold, even her dress that stops above her knees. She shivers and I think I'd lend her my jacket if I had one—I want to give her something but I have nothing to give.

“You can sit on it if you want. Mandalas are meant to be ephemeral.”


“In Tibet, monks make them out of colored sand and as soon as it's finished they destroy it with the sweep of a hand.” Taryn passes her arm parallel to the mandala and flicks her wrist dramatically as I run my fingers over the ridges of a tile glazed with a star. She leans in. “It's supposed to symbolize the impermanence of life.”

The impermanence of life? She looks beautiful, her face so willing in the orange light, but right now this is not what I need. What I need is some forensic show on TV, Dad on the couch half reading the newspaper, and Mom …

“Is this meant to be some kind of lesson?”


She shivers again, takes hold of my hand and kisses it on the palm. We don't move. Her green eyes. The warm tiles still holding the heat of the sun. The light sitting on her top lip like a gold bow. Slowly she slides my hand around her neck, over her shoulder, and presses her forehead into mine, rolling it back and forth like my mom's cat used to until you could feel the bones of its skull beneath the fur.

She's close, so close the first tears wet both her cheeks and mine, and for a moment I'm not sure whose they are, but as one makes its way into my mouth I recognize the taste of it. Or do hers have that same saltiness as mine?

I didn't cry when I heard the news. Seb's mom came into his room, and there was Dad, tall behind her, both of them hushed, and I remember thinking
This is what pale looks like,
and then,
Who died?

“It's your mother,” said Dad as he led me to the car. He drove us to the hospital, our silence defying her death, me wondering all the time why he couldn't have left me that little bit longer in my other world—the one where I had a mother. Where things didn't weigh so much and feel so light.

I wipe my eyes with the back of my sleeve and lean in till her face is made up of pieces I'm so close, her freckles blurred, and I kiss her, like I've never kissed anybody, the divide fading between her body and mine.

“Taryn! Will! Dessert!” Sandra's voice travels across the garden in the night. We pull back, breathing like we've been wrestling.

“Are you okay?” I whisper.

“Sure,” says Taryn, dragging me up, the pattern of a half-moon pressed into her calf. The bones of her fingers thread through mine as she leads me along the path.

*   *   *

“They're good people,” says Dad, sticking the key in the ignition. “Do you want to drive?”

“No, you can,” I say, leaning into the headrest. I spot a star between the branches of a tree, more lucid than all the others in the night sky.

8. Is there such a thing as fate?

When we get home, Dad sprawls in front of the TV in the living room and I think about joining him but he flicks to the news. Adam's still out. I go into the study, turn on the computer, and go to Taryn's page on Facebook. She's online. I send her a message.

I have a question for you.




If you were on the 102nd floor of the south tower of the World Trade Center when the roof was caving in, would you have jumped?

OK, that kind of question. Would I jump? I'd like to think I would. I've always wanted to fly. Hasn't everyone? To choose the way I die.

But imagine standing at the window, the glass all gone, the roar of the fire and the wind and the sirens below you, knowing you've got no chance of getting out alive, thinking, maybe, if I jump, something, some miracle might suck me through a window on a floor below. That my courage, my belief will save me. Single me out.

I'm not sure I believe in miracles, Will. At least they got to free-fall off a tower in Manhattan. There's a kind of poetry to that.


Poetry in death?

The light from the screen defines us against the dark. Poetry in death: I go into my room and from the box under my bed I pull out the photos I took the other day. When I've found the one I'm looking for, I return to the study, lay it facedown on the scanner, the image uploading in layers like a memory. I paste it into my album and send her the link.


Dust. The ground moves beneath my feet. They are bare and now they no longer touch the earth. My body tips, my arms outstretched, the sun warm on my back. I rise higher, each movement of shoulder or wrist alters my direction. The wind buoys me and I soar, riding the thermals, beyond, so high.

Too high.

I dip my head, go into a dive. The ground is white and blurred below me but as I draw closer I see its details. The dust has turned to stone and ruptured into jagged rocks.

I plummet.

*   *   *

When I wake, the dream's still hanging over me and there's an image I can't quite let go of—a single white feather drifting to the ground. The house is subdued. It's only 8:05, too early for Dad and Adam to be gone. I try to remember what day it is; Thursday, I think. On the way home last night, Dad tried to talk about my exams coming up, about returning to things, but when I maintained my silence his focus went back to the road.

I haul myself up and go into the study to see if Taryn has replied. Fish are swimming across the screen.

BOOK: The Beginner's Guide to Living
8.96Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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