Last week I had a tooth extracted, fell down and reamed my left leg while I was rescuing a cat, and lost a friend to melanoma. Mercury is going to be retrograde for 16 more days. If you don’t live in California, let me just say this is not good news. When Mercury is retrograde, according to the astrologists among us, things you’ve never even imagined go wrong.
The tooth had been root-canalled since my senior year of college, but it still hurt to get it out, and the really fun part was throwing up over the deck railing all night when I turned out to be allergic to Vicodin. The leg went through its storm-to-sunset-to-slime-mold color progression and then cleared up, except for a red patch on my shin where blood doesn’t seem to be reabsorbing very well. Apparently this can be dangerous, so I’ve spent the last four days on the sofa with my leg propped above my heart, alternately working on my laptop and reading thrillers.
I used to read novels all the time, five or six a week. Reading was how I relaxed, traveled, dispelled loneliness, and distracted myself from the real world’s annoyances and obfuscations. About three years ago, right around when I got on FaceBook and began a tumultuous relationship, I stopped. There was too much else going on, and I was getting so much social contact from the computer and the boyfriend, I didn’t need to dip into the lives of fictional people to feel as if I was part of an interesting larger world. The boyfriend is now history, and FaceBook has become kind of routine, but I hadn’t picked up a novel until this leg business put me on the sofa.
I think my willing suspension of disbelief has a crack in it. Granted, I’m reading thrillers, which are unlikely to begin with. But at least half my brain is commenting as I read, and the remarks are not kind. “Oh, are you kidding? That makes no sense. Right, how convenient! Next thing you know some lovely, long-legged woman is going to come on the scene – see? Like clockwork. Spare me . . .” Usually I have no trouble throwing books across the room if they’re idiotic, and I’ve done so with quite a few authors. But the thrillers I’m reading this week are by people whose work I always liked before.
Some of this is having stepped away for so long: the plot twists are too obvious, the characters too shallow and predictable. When you read a lot, you get to kind of liking fictional people despite these flaws, but I haven’t built up the requisite patience with them yet. And some of this is because my friend Rodger just died.
When real death enters your immediate vicinity — when you watch the flesh at someone’s temples turn porcelain white and sink in toward the skull, making beautiful but terminal hollows — then the superficiality of fictional death seems absurd. Someone in a thriller gets shot and is left lying on the floor while the plot races on without him. One of your friends reaches his last week with cancer and you watch his wife and daughters getting used to the idea. You think of what you could say that might be meaningful. The world slows down and takes on more intense colors. My sense of smell actually got a whole lot better in Rodger’s last days.
Fiction isn’t going anywhere, and I’ll probably shift from thrillers to classics, to cut out some of the ridiculousness. But I think I’ve crossed a threshold, where reality is more appealing than it used to be. There’s something about it that’s just… I don’t know… REAL. That matters. I’m not sure I have time for things that don’t.
I think I’ve finally bumped up against my own mortality