Authors: Helen Phillips
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This book was written over the course of the past decade. In that time, I have been beyond fortunate to receive a great deal of nurturing and support from a great many individuals and institutions. It is a profound delight to acknowledge:
My agent, Faye Bender, for her tranquillity and her guidance.
My editor, Sarah Bowlin, with whom it has been a joy to collaborate, and the rest of the Henry Holt team, especially Leslie Brandon, Kerry Cullen, Lucy Kim, Jason Liebman, and Maggie Richards.
The editors who assisted me in revising drafts of these stories, especially Halimah Marcus, Benjamin Samuel, and Rob Spillman.
The publications in which pieces from this book first appeared, some in slightly different form: “The Knowers” in
; “The Messy Joy of the Final Throes of the Dinner Party” on PRI's
; “Life Care Center” in
The Iowa Review
; “The Joined” in
; “Flesh and Blood” and “Children” in
; “When the Tsunami Came” in
; “One of Us Will Be Happy; It's Just a Matter of Which One” in
Fairy Tale Review
; “Things We Do” in
; “R” and “How I Began to Bleed Again After Six Alarming Months Without” in
; “The Worst” in
; “The Beekeeper” in
; and “Wedding Stairs” in
The Rona Jaffe Foundation, the Whiting Foundation, the Ucross Foundation, and Symphony Space.
Lisa Graziano of Leapfrog Press, for publishing my first book, and Krista Marino of Delacorte, for publishing my second.
My teachers and colleagues, current and former, in the Brooklyn College Department of English, including Julie Agoos, L. A. Asekoff, Elaine Brooks, Erin Courtney, Michael Cunningham, James Davis, Joshua Henkin, Janet Moser, and Elissa Schappell, with infinite thanks to Jenny Offill, Ellen Tremper, and Mac Wellman.
My former classmates in the Brooklyn College MFA program, especially Jeanie Gosline, Andy Hunter, Reese Kwon, Scott Lindenbaum, Elissa Matsueda, Joseph Rogers, and Margaret Zamos-Monteith.
The searingly insightful members, current and former, of the Imitative Fallacies, including Adam Brown, David Ellis, Tom Grattan, Anne Ray, and Mohan Sikka, with special thanks to Marie-Helene Bertino, Elizabeth Logan Harris, Elliott Holt, and Amelia Kahaney.
My students, who have graced my classrooms and my life with their curiosity and intelligence.
My dear friends Sarah Baron, Sarah Brown, Adam Farbiarz, Aysu Farbiarz, David Gorin, Lucas Hanft, Avni Jariwala, Jeremy Kahan, Debra Morris, Jonas Oransky, Laura Perciasepe, Genevieve Randa, Kendyl Salcito, Maisie Tivnan, and Tess Wheelwright, with extra thanks to Andy Vernon-Jones for the photographs.
My wonderful family: my parents, Paul Phillips and Susan Zimmermann; my grandparents Paul Phillips Sr. and Mary Jane Zimmermann; my in-laws, Gail and Doug Thompson; my siblings-in-law, Peter Light, Raven Phillips, and Nate Thompson; my brother, Mark Phillips; my sister Katherine Phillips (you are still at my side); and my two dreamy little nieces. My sister Alice Light is the best adviser imaginable, in matters of both literature and life.
My children, Ruth and Neal, “a detonation in my heart.” You're where the fun is.
Adam: Thank you for the past thirteen years. You know why this book is for you.
There are those who wish to know, and there are those who don't wish to know. At first Tem made fun of me in that condescending way of his (a flick of my nipple, a grape tossed at my nose) when I claimed to be among the former; when he realized I meant it, he grew anxious, and when he realized I really did mean it, his anxiety morphed into terror.
” he demanded tearfully in the middle of the night.
I couldn't answer. I had no answer.
“This isn't only about you, you know,” he said. “It affects me too. Actually, maybe it affects me more than it affects you. I don't want to sit around for a bunch of decades awaiting the worst day of my life.”
Touched, I reached out to squeeze his hand in the dark. Grudgingly, he squeezed back. I would have preferred to be like Tem, of course I would have! If only I could have known it was possible to know and still accepted ignorance. But now that the technology had been mastered, the knowledge was available to every citizen for a nominal fee.
Tem stood in the doorway as I buttoned the blue wool coat he'd given me for, I think, our four-year anniversary a couple years back.
“I don't want to know where you're going,” he said.
“Fine,” I said, matter-of-factly checking my purse for my keys, my eyedrops. “I won't tell you.”
“I forbid you to leave this apartment,” he said.
“Oh hon.” I sighed. I did feel bad. “That's just not in your character.”
With a tremor, he fell away from the doorway to let me pass. He slouched against the wall, arms crossed, staring at me. His eyes wet and so very dark. Splendid Tem.
After I stepped out, I heard the dead bolt sliding into place.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
“So?” Tem said
when I unlocked the dead bolt, stepped back inside. He was standing right there in the hallway, his eyes darker than ever, his slouch more pronounced. I was willing to believe he hadn't moved in the 127 minutes I'd been gone.
“So,” I replied forcefully. I was shaken, I'll admit it, but I refused to shake him with my shakenness.
“Youâ¦?” He mouthed the question more than spoke it.
I nodded curtly. No way was I going to tell him about the bureaucratic office with its pale yellow walls that either smelled like urine or brought that odor to mind. It never ceases to amaze me that, even as our country forges into the future with ever more bedazzling devices and technologies, the archaic infrastructure rots away beneath our feet, the pavement and the rails, the schools and the DMV. In any case: Tem would not know, today or ever, about the place I'd gone, about the humming machine that looked like a low-budget ATM (could they really do no better?), about the chilly metal buttons of the keypad into which I punched my social security number after waiting in line for over forty-five minutes behind other soon-to-be Knowers. There was a silent, grim camaraderie among us; surely I was not the only one who felt it. Yet carefully, deliberately, desperately, I avoided looking at their faces as they stepped away from the machine and exited the room. Grief, reliefâI didn't want to know. I had to do what I'd come to do. And what did my face look like, I wonder, as I glanced down at the paper the slot spat out at me, as I folded it up and stepped away from the machine?
Tem held his hand out, his fingers spread wide, his palm quivering but receptive.
“Okay, lay it on me,” he said. The words were light, almost jovial, but I could tell they were the five hardest words he'd ever uttered. I swore to never again accuse Tem of being less than courageous. And I applauded myself for going straight from the office to the canal, for standing there above the sickly greenish water, for glancing once more at the piece of paper, for tearing it into as many scraps as possible though it was essentially a scrap to begin with, for dropping it into the factory-scented breeze. I'd thought it was the right thing to do, and now I knew it was. Tem should not have to live under the same roof with that piece of paper.
“I don't have it,” I said brightly.
“You don't?” he gasped, suspended between joy and confusion. “You mean you changed yourâ”
“I got it,” I said, before he could go too far down that road. “I got it, and then I got rid of it.”
He stared at me, waiting.
“I mean, after memorizing it.”
I watched him deflate.
“Fuck you,” he said. “I'm sorry, but fuck you.”
“Yeah,” I said sympathetically. “I know.”
know!” he raged, seizing upon the word. “You
He was thrashing about, he was so pissed, he was grabbing me, he was weeping, he half-collapsed upon me. I navigated us down the hallway to the old couch.
When he finally quieted, he was different. Maybe different than he'd ever been.
“Tell me,” he calmly commanded. His voice just at the threshold of my hearing.
“Are you sure?” I said. My voice sounded too loud, too hard. In that moment I found myself, my insistence on knowing, profoundly annoying. Suddenly it seemed quite likely that I'd made a catastrophic error. The kind of error that could ruin the rest of my life.
Tem nodded, gazed at me.
I got wildly scared; I who'd so boldly sought knowledge now did not even dare give voice to a date.
Tem nodded again, controlled, miserable. It was my responsibility to inform him.
“April 17â” I began.
But Tem shrieked before I could finish. “Stop!” he cried, shoving his fingers into his ears, his calmness vanished. “Never mind! Don't don't don't!”
” I screamed, loud enough that he could hear it through his fingers. It was lonelyâever so lonelyâto hold this knowledge alone. April 17, 2043: a tattoo inside my brain. But it was as it should be. It was the choice I had made. Tem wished to be spared, and spare him I would.
It was an okay life span. Not enoughâis it ever enough?âbut enough to have a life; enough to work a job, to raise children, perhaps to meet a grandchild or two. Certainly abbreviated, though; shorter than average; too short, yes; but not tragically short.
And so in many ways I could live a life like any other. Like Tem's. I could go blithely along, indulging my petty concerns, lacking perspective, frequently forgetting I wasn't immortal. Yet it would be a lie if I said a single day passed without me thinking about April 17, 2043.