'Meta,' a Short Story by Charles Bock
A woman whose wife is dying in the hospital meditates on the meaning of life.
Photos by Eva O'Leary
In the movies it was common for a coma victim to respond to a loved one's voice, so maybe that would work here. She'd tried everything else so what could it hurt?
She continued caressing her wife's hand. It bothered the woman that she was becoming accustomed to the slack in her wife's hand, the mush and malleability beneath its bark of callouses. The woman told her wife which flowers had just started blooming that day in the planters on the sill of their living-room window. The asparagus soup she'd been making for a dinner surprise on the night of the accident. She wanted to know why her wife just had to rebuild that Triumph's engine in the first place. Was she speaking now, or was her voice just in her head? It wasn't just a metaphysical question; it actually might matter.
The woman cursed the gearhead pride her wife took every Sunday morning in scrubbing and cleaning that damned motorcycle in the driveway in front of their apartment building. She saw in her mind's eye, her wife on one knee, a schmear of grease across her cheek, looking so dumpy and cute in her overalls and Docs as she searched her toolbox for the correct wrench. The woman cursed the driver who'd run that traffic signal. She expressed amazement about the succession of city streets that had led to the accident site; Burnt Church Road followed by Burnt Temple Road, and then Burnt Mosque Road. At least the city planner had been equanimous in his hatred of religions, said the woman. She guessed you couldn't ask for much more than that. Now she let out a laugh that was more like a moan, and voiced anger because she could not get the song "Girlfriend in a Coma" out of her head.
Meta meta meta, she said.
Bloops from the machines. Pulse normal. Blood pressure normal. Brain activity a sedate-looking mountain range.
The woman said the name of a movie out loud, and asked if her wife remembered. That night they'd come upon that particular movie on some basic cable network. The woman's wife had stopped flipping channels, she'd shushed the woman's questions and the woman had ignored the shush and made another joke, and then she'd realized that her wife was leaning forward, she was actually into the movie, it plugged into her aggressive side, something. No law said only men could enjoy red meat and cornpone, after all. It was sexist to even think as much, if a person thought about it. So the woman had shushed as ordered. Did her comatose life partner remember about the part of the movie where the boxer's wife had fallen into a coma? Where instead of training for his championship fight, the boxer had sat a vigil at the hospital? Time marching away before his rematch against the world's heavyweight champion, and the boxer wasn't training, but instead waiting for his comatose wife—check that, his comatose, pregnant wife—to awaken. It had been established that the boxer was illiterate, earlier in the film he hadn't been able to read the cue cards for a local commercial and as such lost a chance at cashing in on his valiant but losing effort in that first championship fight. But in the hospital, he tried to read to his comatose wife and while doing so, stumbled over the words in the children's reader, slowly enunciating syllables that were difficult for him to pronounce. The whole montage a bit painful to watch for a viewer who did not like being overtly manipulated; meanwhile, unless your heart had been fully and utterly removed, the montage—a series of deliciously edited slow moments, during which the boxer had taught himself to read—also was charming beyond words. Bulletproof effective in its manipulations.
The woman taught American literature to high school sophomores, an AP class, most of her students ending up at some sort of college. Two or three per quarter usually showed some sort of critical acumen along with a sustained ethic. Most were funny in some way or another. The type of school that was in a safely progressive district, with nobody making a hiss about the preponderance of teachers with same-sex partners, and enough diversity that parents didn't have to feel guilty about their financial successes, but at the same time could feel that their children were part of the melting pot and were safe too. Muscular parent/teacher fundraising arm. Solid benefits package for employees. Much worse ways out there to make a living. Most of the woman's students would have been able to point out the parallels between a teacher talking to her wife in a coma and a movie character talking to his wife in a coma, for instance. And yet was that fulfillment? However nourishing teaching may have been, the woman had creative urges and dreams. She woke up at around dawn three days a week, and spent at least two hours alone, at her computer, her internet shut off, no music playing. She was about a third of the way through a first draft of a novel. Three of her short stories had received polite letters of encouragement from literary journals with names that brought recognition from the other aspiring writers who she commiserated with in forums online and in person at a monthly writers group. The woman's voice was a little hoarse. She'd been talking for a while now. She paused and sipped tea with honey, a trick she had long implemented during her classroom life so as to preserve her vocal cords. She put down the mug and looked at her wife's placid face and, indulging in her creative abilities, using what she perceived as weakness in the existing movie narrative as an open gate, recounted that part of the movie when the boxer had been reading to his comatose wife, and had become interested in the story The Little Engine That Could. The part where the boxer had stopped, went, whoa, and said, out loud, "I think I can—so that's where that came from."
The actor portraying the boxer was beyond a megastar, one of the top box office draws throughout the world, so famous that it was almost embarrassing to note or comment on his fame, but, explained the woman, riffing now, her hands a flurry of motions as she spoke, what was truly astounding was that just like the punch-drunk and nearly illiterate boxer that the box office star was portraying, the box office star also happened to be captivated by the stories in the thin hardbacks; indeed, during shooting breaks, the box office star remained on the set, in his hospital seat, next to the now vacated hospital bed. No longer did he read out loud to the actress playing his wife, no longer did he move his lips along to the words as his character the boxer would surely do; instead the actor scanned the lines of text, soundless, turning one page after another. Going back through Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Missing Brownies, he uncovered the clues that explained just how Bugs Meany had originally purloined that tray. He said nothing but rose and headed, without a word, back to his trailer. A dictum was soon issued: The actor was not to be disturbed.
The box office star had clawed and fought his way up from beefcake roles in soft porn, his bare pale white ass was pumping on the screen for six seconds. His first appearance in an actual Hollywood studio film had been for all of one scene, in a comedy, where he'd played a thug and stole a purse from a nebbish's girlfriend. Years of eating shit and bouncing around the lower levels of Hollywood had affected his psyche pretty good, and for him, getting that first boxing picture made had been an epic struggle in its own right, and when it had been a breakout hit and had actually won the Oscar for Best Picture, he'd been propelled to a new level of stardom, one which had surprised him of course, but which he sure the hell was going to take full advantage of. Who exactly is going to turn down courtside tickets to the Showtime Lakers? What hard-dicked red-blooded American man doesn't want hot women throwing themselves at him, two at a time? The box office star had worked like a pig to get where he was and he sure as fuck wasn't going to give it up so easily, and so for a few years now his priority had been to make films that kept people buying those tickets; he wanted to open big and stay big, keeping his asking price for a film at a level that conveyed his place on the food chain. Pure and simple. As for the scorn that reviewers and critics had heaped onto his subsequent films, that was due to jealousy. People who were too cool for anything but their own sense of their excellent taste. The real public enjoyed the product and that was what really mattered. Those were the box office star's real critics. Like the O'Jays sang: Give the people what they want.
Truth was, it was hugely fun to actually have a major role in something successful. To be in movies that people outside of your family had actually seen.
The woman in the hospital seat took another sip of honey tea, swallowed, put down the mug, and explained to her comatose wife that, from inside the fortress of his trailer, the star ordered his assistant to track down classic novels (Amazon delivered them on the same day). The star demanded his assistant get contemporary anthologies that collected the best short stories of given years (Amazon brought them as well). After that nothing went in or out of that trailer. It was no small problem; this film was the long-awaited sequel to the boxing drama, after all; only just as the box office star's priorities had adjusted with his success, the true underdog drama and merits of that first film had been similarly twisted. Pretty much every scene in the sequel required the box office star to be in front of the camera. Honestly, this whole trash can fire of an enterprise revolved around him. Still, vanity project or not, those trailer doors remained shut. The director shot the few scenes that had other characters, he filled out B-roll stuff, but each time he went to the trailer and tried to talk to the box office star, no dice. The producers were similarly turned back. His agent was allowed inside but then also stopped answering texts or emails from anyone associated with the movie. Three biblically long days. Finally word came forth, a request: the presence of the actress playing the boxer's wife. Because shit wasn't already fucked up enough.
The actress playing the box office star's wife may not have been considered elite, not in the sense of Meryl Streep, nobody from the Foreign Press Association had nominated her to head out for one of those drunken nights at the Golden Globes, but she was nonetheless respected in that critics both at newspapers and on the internet spoke in positive terms about her, usually singling her out for a performance in some kind of black-and-white film with subtitles. Her traditionally Italian hair and visage had gotten her a small but quality role in what had grown into a legendary film about a mob family, and this had helped get her shot in the first boxing movie—at the time it had been a big deal for her, a legitimately odd film, the screenplay written by this himbo actor, with everything dark and small and sad and personal, so that when the guy made it up those marble stairs at dawn and raised his arms above his head, you felt this rush and you felt this hope and you believed. Just not your normal studio fare in any way, shape, or diagram. Just as important, her first chance at a leading lady's part. You think that kind of thing came her way every day? It did not come your way once. Nobody working on that film had any idea, they'd all been like a ragtag little underdog team, making this dark little picture that probably wasn't even going to be released. Only it had hit, it had blown the fuck up. Truth was, it was hugely fun to actually have a major role in something successful. To be in movies that people outside of your family had actually seen. To have your mother's friends in jealous awe at how well you were doing. To say nothing of cashing a check with ass tons of zeros and commas. So she'd come back for the sequel. Were you crazy? A not-insignificant bonus to all this was that she got to keep doing what she thought of as her real work, those small plays and independent movies in which she believed, and to whose flourishing she had devoted her adult life. (One for them and one for you, that was the saying, wasn't it?) In this film the actress's big scene involved waking from her coma and batting her eyes and looking at her husband with heartbreaking love. That was the sum and total of her contribution: large eyes and unconditional love. The sexism actually couldn't be any more obvious. Except it could, because his voice had brought her back to life, his love had brought her back, all so that, having just awakened from her coma, she had to ask him to do one thing for her. She would draw him in. He would put his ear to her mouth. "Win," she'd whisper, with what little strength she had left. Her health and suffering existed only so that the boxer would have sufficient motivation to beat the living shit out of another human being (a black male), that HE might be champion, might possess glory.
And she'd repeat, forceful in this second pronunciation: "WIN."
The comatose wife looked, to the woman, so serene as to be the actual embodiment of having no worries and concerns, she was this placid and peaceful, but also looked like she was sleeping, like she could just up and wake at this moment. Probably the better sophomores in the woman's high school English class would have connected that empty coma state expression with the notion of the wife acting as a symbol inside the story: They would have seen that on the one side was her personality and her life; on the other side, blankness and death. And this guy from the woman's online writing circle who went by the handle XGHLPH145, it was likely he would have complained that she couldn't just set up her symbol with such an easy binary. Only that Xhole wouldn't have just said that, he'd have mansplained his point until the end of the time, and thrown in an example from Fight Club to boot, Fight Club was like Xhole's goddamn Bible, and while the woman wasn't planning on reading Chuck Palniwhat anytime this century, she also knew that in the movie version Brad Pitt ended up being the same person as Ed Norton; and she could all but visualize Xhole's chat room message about how if she wanted to make her symbol actually mean something, she had to do something similarly unpredictable and fucked up.
So cue the ominous klaxon. Cue the resonant bang of a church bell. Cue the shrill bell that gets rung when a boxing match is about to begin. How about repetition: a ringing that starts out as a church bell but ends up summoning the start of the championship fight? How about the clangs of hope and inspiration? How about the bells of fate? That fucking heart-monitoring pulse-machine kept giving its regular normal readings for the comatose wife. Nothing that suggested that she was about to wake up at this moment, come out of her coma, THIS ONE.
The woman lowering her head and closing her eyes. Opening them.
Maybe, what, a week left before the principals were supposed to wrap shooting? From studio head on down everyone agreed that it was on the respected actress to get the box office star back onto the set. The last thing anyone wanted was for tabloids to get ahold of this, so this situation had to get rectified quickly. The actress may have resented all this being put on her, but at the same time, she was not the type to complain; nor was she about to blow up the spot on a co-star. After a glass of wine, or two, though? Having checked over each shoulder, it was possible that, speaking to a trusted friend, she might make one of her teeny tiny little couched and conditional statements: The actress would admit that she felt that the box office star was earnest and sweet. He always tried to be generous on the set. She might also admit he had grown so accustomed to getting things his way that maybe he did not understand other people had a way, too. He had a good heart and meant well. The box office star seemed dedicated to the success of a film and it was really something how often he summoned her to his trailer to talk about how to play a moment. Having said that, the actress also might admit here it bothered her, just a bit, how regularly the box office star went with the most obvious acting choice. Big emotions and sap, that's what he could be counted for in a scene, the sloppy regularity of a puppy's affection—probably he had the same motivations. He could get grabby during love scenes. The actress's reps had spent much capital and pulled many lanyards worth of strings to try and get her out of those trailer meetings, and it was true, as the film had progressed, those sessions had been occurring less often. Still, everyone knew the box office star was the 12,000-pounds elephant pushing his way around the set that owed its existence to the elephant's weight. No way around him. He called and with so much riding on it, you just knew the respected actress had to go up the four metal steps of that trailer and she had to knock on that corrugated door.
An odd smell when it opened: like getting hit by a breeze from the packed closets of old people that hadn't been aired out and fumigated for way too long. The overhead lighting fixture on the far side of the trailer must have burned out and it hadn't been replaced. The actress was pleasant and bright and positive in her greeting. The trailer probably three times as big as hers, its couch was made of fine leather the color of chocolate. The actor hadn't shaven and his eyes were bloodshot and he had the look and manner to him of a soldier who had been under fire for a long and uninterrupted stretch of time. It took the actress a second to recognize the actor was wearing the boxing robe that he was supposed to use in the fight. Thank hell it was cinched at the waist. He moved toward her and the word that came to mind from his gaze was "fervent." He put his hands to his head and did something with them that seemed to be a combination of trying to pull out his hair and rubbing his scalp really hard. He laughed. The white-satin sleeve of his boxing robe was coated with soy sauce, at least the actress hoped it was soy sauce. He wanted her to think about star systems. She did not quite understand what he meant and so he went further and asked her to close her eyes. She wasn't sure she should, but did. For a sec, now, he said, think about just how vast a star system had to be. Think about the endless conundrum of a black hole.
The actress was more than a little taken aback, but still remained composed enough to stifle a laugh.
When we say that the odds of something are "astronomical," the box office star continued, we actually included black-hole systems and black matter and whole star systems. "Astronomical" was wide enough to hold all of them. Only, the word didn't really communicate that kind of size. Astronomical was just a crappy way of saying "huge."
The actress told the star she cared about him. Everyone was really, really concerned. The star grunted. All this time now, he said. Finally he recognized.
You think about the odds of someone making the leap from soft porn to box office gold like he had; even someone who worked hard and made sacrifices and stuck with it and jumped through the right hoops and was super shrewd and all that. Those odds had to be rare in numbers too astronomically huge for words to even represent.
At the side of her comatose wife, the woman's hands moving of their own accord, all but continually, the tics that she did when her mind was going super fast. When she was deeply nervous and didn't even know she was doing them. Spinning a rubber band around and around on her wrist, only she didn't have a rubber band, so was just pantomiming the spin. She was pulling at her head the way the actor pulled at his head.
Those critics were right. He'd been pandering. He was the boxer. Trapped in his own self. Punching away idiotically for his own glory at the expense of all else. Well this time he wasn't going to be in another predictable cornpone piece of horseshit. If this particular box office star had anything to say about it—and let's be honest, he had every goddamn thing to say about it—this time they were going to do things different.
The actor pantomimed spinning the rubber band around and around on his wrist, only just like there weren't any rubber bands on the woman in the hospital room, there weren't any rubber bands in the trailer so he too was just pantomiming the spin.
This moment and this moment. The next one too.
The actress asked how exactly he was going to alter the film. The actor said he didn't know. The actress said that in real life it took years for you to make your way up through the muck of sexual confusion and figure out who you are. She said that in real life you got lucky if you got to move into your progressive neighborhood and surround yourself with people who espoused similarly open-minded attitudes about class and race and gender, let alone people who actually were diverse and inclusive, a mix of various classes and genders and races. The actress asked the box office star if he wanted to change the hospital-room scene. Of course he wanted to change the scene. Of course he wanted things to be different. But that he had the clout to make things different seemed in no small part a tribute to his I think I can attitude, which suggested that he should keep the film as it was.
But then, the clout to make changes also made him the exception, which in different ways put more of the onus on him.
He smelled like he had not showered since arriving at the hospital after hearing the news. He had the mug his hand but had drunk all of the honey tea.
Win? said the woman, unaware of what were her words and what were her tears.
Real life you did the best you could, you figured out what you believed in and tried to put those beliefs into the world. This could mean representing or playing out those beliefs artistically, or enacting them with the people in your lives, teaching your children well, and or maybe teaching other people's children well.
You struggled through the mess of dating profiles and meat markets and right swipes and, miracle of miracles, found a partner to snuggle on the couch and eat ice cream with and unwind your day, sharing your tribulations while you watched a bad movie. And you enjoyed that piece of shit—because you were seeing it through the eyes of your partner, and because you got to take joy in their joy.
All such a joke. No reason. A big random joke.
Into the trailer now, barging in on the hunched woman and her comatose wife, Brad Pitt looked all CGI huge and muscular, he seemed at first to be menacing, but now he turned the other cheek, and turned it again, turning so much that he twirled round and round in circles.
Real life was Sherman's army approaching with torches, an X-wing fighter closing in on Encyclopedia Brown.
Even if you were in on the joke, it was a fucking joke.
Everything about the woman still. Stopped cold. Frozen in time.
Look at me, reader.
Look at this page if you are reading this on a page. If you are reading on a screen, stay with the screen.
I want to ask you something.
I want to know.
Just when in blue burning hell did your wife hear your voice and defy all medical conventions and just out of nowhere rise up from out of a coma to resume life as something other than a flesh sack?
When in real life does anyone win?