It had been at least three months since Jane Pearsall had been invited to something. A neighbor named Rose, a youngish woman, had invited her to a potluck and discussion group, something, Rose said, happened every Friday at six. Jane walked down the block slowly carrying a Tupperware of dumplings in both hands. The dumplings slid around sickly in the cold plastic, and Jane felt that her feet were heavy. She should have worn different shoes.
Jane lifted her hand to ring the doorbell and felt a damp breeze against her skin. At home, Jane had cats that rubbed up against her. She shivered a little.
Rose opened the door. She looked puzzled, staring into Jane’s eyes for too long. “Oh, it’s Jane,” she declared to no one but Jane.
“Dumplings,” Jane said, holding out the Tupperware. She wanted to be rid of them. She wanted for them to be amongst the other dishes at the table. She wanted the dumplings to blend in with everything else so as not to be a source of conversation.
“Oh.” Rose took them. “I guess you didn’t know about our Asian theme tonight, that’s okay.”
“No,” Jane assured her, embarrassed at the misunderstanding. “These are Chinese dumplings, from a Chinese recipe book and all.”
“Oh,” Rose said and turned into the house. Jane followed. The house smelled musty, a combination of too many food spices and plants with dirt spilling out from their pots. The front hall was cramped and filled with piles of things that didn’t have to do with each other. Books, old magazines, pieces of clay sculptures, scraps of paper with lists on them lay on either side of her. She pushed through a set of French doors with smudged windowpanes that opened into the living room.
Eight people sat on couches and wooden chairs. Their faces looked anxious. Rose stood behind her then. “Go mingle,” she said.
“Do you need help in the kitchen?” Jane asked, smiling too wide. The people in the living room looked at her, blank and dull.
“Shoo,” Rose told her. She placed a warm, flat palm on Jane’s back and gave her a little push.
Jane sat in a wooden chair between a young woman and a man closer to her own age. Perhaps he was older than she. Jane didn’t feel she was old. She had turned fifty last month. Looking around, she suspected most people at the gathering were younger.
“Are you the specialist?” asked the young woman.
“What? No. I’m Jane.” Jane held out her hand. She wondered what kind of specialist the woman meant.
“Liz,” said the young woman. Her hand felt big and rough. Jane wondered what she did for a living.
Liz looked away. Jane felt she had disappointed her somehow. Liz was plain and too serious looking for her age. She was probably not twenty yet. She wore her blond-brown hair back in a tight ponytail. She wore a faded green sack dress and clogs. Jane didn’t know what kind of a young person would attend a group like this on a Friday night. Jane saw most people here were dressed plain and sloppy. She rubbed the back of her hand across her mouth, wiping the lipstick away. It had been too much, too bright a color. Her mouth was dry and she felt the cracks in her lips.
“I am the guest speaker,” declared the man on Jane’s right. He leaned across her, extending his hand to Liz. Jane leaned back as far as she could. The man had a small head and wore a safari type hat low over his brow. He smelled of peanuts.
“Oh, oh, oh wow,” stammered Liz, “so, so good to meet you. I read both your books.”
Jane wondered if Rose was going to offer them drinks. She thought she’d like a glass of wine.
The lights in the living room went out. Jane let out a little gasp. Perhaps the dinner and discussion would be cancelled.
Rose appeared in the doorway with a candle up to her face. A big, red candle. It illuminated her features weirdly, causing her nostrils to glow red. It reminded Jane of kids camping out, holding flashlights to their faces and telling ghost stories. Rose carried the flame to the low coffee table in the middle of the room. She lit more candles.
“Tonight’s discussion theme is Death and Dying,” declared Rose. “Everyone here will have a chance to speak, and everyone will be respected equally.” She flung her long hair back over her shoulder.
Jane sat rigid in her hard wooden chair. She hadn’t pictured a thing like this. She’d thought of a dinner party, of wine and talk and soft jazz from the speakers. The flickering light made the people’s heads into huge shadows on the wall and their bodies folded and hidden.
Jane would lie at night on the right side of her bed and think about how much bigger the bed was in comparison to her body. She would think of how much smaller the bed was than the rest of the room it was in and how much smaller the room was in comparison to the whole house. She’d think about how her house took up such a small amount of space on her block – and her block was only one block in a one million-person city! The city in comparison to the state was nothing. Incomprehensibly small. Then there was the state inside the union and the union inside its continent. The continent was only part of a planet, which orbited around in the solar system. And the horrible, horrible thing was that the solar system was in a universe that never ended.
When Jane was six she had asked her mother, “What’s at the end?” Meaning the end of outer space.
“Well,” her mother said, “there is no end, it goes on forever.”
“But what color is it?” Jane asked.
“What do you mean?”
“After all the black?”
“Well, no one knows, sweetie, no one’s been there.”
Jane screamed then, and beat her fists into the carpet. There should be an end, she knew, and someone should know about it. When she tried to fathom a thing with no end, she felt a pain in her head and a deep hollow in her stomach. Her mother made Jane’s favorite for dinner that night: roast chicken, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob and green Jell-O.
Once, after an especially bad relationship with a man at work, Jane had gone to see a therapist. In this day and age, Jane knew, therapy was common, even for people who didn’t have big problems. And she wasn’t an old-fashioned sort of person, she kept up with the times well, she thought.
The therapist was a man, Jody Heartwell. Jane thought because of the name that she’d be seeing a woman. But the man, Jody, had a big beard and a dark suit and squeezed one of those rubber stress balls with his hands. When Jane told him about the small feeling she had at night, Jody kneaded the pink ball and asked, “Is that because you’re alone, Jane? All by yourself in the whole universe?”
Jane had not gone back. There were some things nobody should say, not even therapists.
This was how Jane felt now, small and hollow. “So,” Rose settled into a big chair. “Who would like to begin?”
A man across the circle leaned in, “What is the reality of death?” he asked. His round glasses glinted in the candlelight. “I mean, to discuss such a thing, I think we should go around first and each define our own realities. Then a consensus, a reality consensus can be reached, and we can proceed.”
Jane felt the woman next to her slump. “I respect Tom’s comment?” she said like it was a question, “But I don’t really think we have time for that?”
“Could we tell a dream we had?” asked someone from the corner. “Like if we don’t really have anything tangible to say about death? ‘Cause I heard you shouldn’t die in your dreams, but the other night I did.”
“Let’s keep on track, people,” Rose declared, clapping her hands. Jane wondered if Rose remembered she was there. She shifted in her chair. She hoped she wouldn’t have to speak.
Jane continued to shift in her chair, growing more uncomfortable as around the room, the people spoke one by one. They talked on and on and the room was warm and the lava lamp buzzed. Jane could tell by the way their voices raised and tightened that each person was trying to outdo the one before them. Each wanted to say a deeper and more meaningful philosophy.
Jane’s eyes focused on a man wearing a deep, red vest. Once, when she was young, she’d read a science fiction book in which men traveled to a distant planet. On this planet the men saw colors that no one else ever had. When the men returned to earth, they couldn’t describe the colors to anyone. The men couldn’t say the colors were more like green than blue or more red than orange because they just weren’t like any known color.
Jane would close her eyes at night and concentrate on imagining a brand new color. She’d alternate crowding her mind with every color and wiping her mind blank, but nothing worked. There was no way to imagine something the mind had never seen.
The young woman’s hand was on her shoulder. Jane took in the touch, relishing, until she realized that the woman was shaking her a little and repeating, “It’s your turn now.”
“Do you want to share your thoughts on Death and Dying?” asked Rose.
Jane was silent. She felt angry now. She did not want to share her thoughts on Death and Dying. She thought she could tell them that everyone dies alone and she was alone already so what did it matter? But she didn’t have anything to say. Nothing that would interest these people. Someone coughed. The silence was lasting too long.
The red vest began to move. The man wearing it leaned forward. He had a gray beard trimmed even and short like a bush. His skin was tan. “I have something to share with all.” He spoke with a slight accent, European, but from where specifically, Jane could not tell.
“You all remember that terrible fire three months ago? The one that happened on the north side of this town?” he asked the room. Everyone nodded. Jane remembered reading about the fire, how a woman close to her own age had died, trapped in the upstairs bedroom of her own house.
“Well,” continued the man, “That woman was my lover. The only person who meant a thing to me. We were secret in love though, because she was my boss. At my work it is not okay to have an office romance.”
No one spoke. Jane heard crickets outside. The man continued, “The funeral was the worst. There was no seat for me in the front row. They flew her ex-husband in from Washington DC. He sat in the front row and so did her grown-up daughter. I was just a man, though. A man in a black suit who no one knew. I could not go up in front of the people and tell them I was her and she was me and we slept tangled in one another every night and woke up laughing each morning.” The man paused, scratching his beard. “I don’t know,” he said, “that’s just what I have to say about death. Death and dying.”
“Well,” declared Rose, “I guess it’s time for the dinner break.” Rose stood. “And,” she said, “I’d really like the energy of this group to keep flowing, so if you’re not really, really feeling it, this is a good time to leave.” When Rose said, “really feeling it,” she squeezed her fists tightly and pulled them to her chest. Then she looked directly at Jane.
Jane gathered her things. The man’s story had made tears spring into her eyes. She felt the man watching her as she put on her coat. She left the Tupperware of dumplings on Rose’s table.
She fit her key into the keyhole of her front door, pausing when she heard footsteps. The sun had almost set and above the dusty purple mountains was still a line of orange. The bearded man stood on her sidewalk.
“Don’t cry,” he told her. “I made it up.” He shrugged, raising his arms up toward the darkening sky. “It’s a lie,” he said, “A story.”
“What?” Jane asked, frozen. The key was in the lock. She heard one of her cats inside, scratching at the door, wanting out.
“To fool those people,” said the man, “make them feel something, you know. So don’t be sad. It never happened.”
“I didn’t like that party,” Jane said, removing her key from the lock. “I think I just like regular conversation better.”
The man laughed. “I am Bruno,” he told her.
“Jane,” she said.
“Jane,” Bruno stepped closer. He smelled of coffee and almonds. “Let’s walk. We’ll see what normal people do in their homes around here.”
She walked with him through the neighborhood. When they saw lamplight in a window they walked closer. They saw families eating dinner. They watched a fat man watching television. They saw people on treadmills and dogs pacing over floors. The night was warm and dewy. And when Jane couldn’t see in a window, Bruno let her hop up on him, piggyback style.