The Beginner's Guide to Livingby Lia Hills
Seven days after his mother dies in a sudden, senseless accident, seventeen-year-old Will embarks on a search for meaning that leads him to the great philosophers—Plato, Seneca, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche—and to Taryn, the beautiful girl he meets at his mother's wake. In Lia Hills's The Beginner's Guide to Living, Will is desperate to find, however/i>
Seven days after his mother dies in a sudden, senseless accident, seventeen-year-old Will embarks on a search for meaning that leads him to the great philosophers—Plato, Seneca, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche—and to Taryn, the beautiful girl he meets at his mother's wake. In Lia Hills's The Beginner's Guide to Living, Will is desperate to find, however he can, something authentic, something ultimate, something so true he would live or die for it. But is he willing to risk losing Taryn—losing everything--to seek the answers he craves?
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The Beginner's Guide to Living
By Lia Hills
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2009 Lia Hills
All rights reserved.
She looks good for a corpse. Except she never wore green eye shadow, was never this still. Her rib cage has been cracked open — you can't see anything, it's all been cleaned up, but I can imagine them beneath her dress, the tracks of stitches that will never heal. Some doctor thrust his hand inside her chest, reached in and touched her heart. It must affect your view of love. It didn't work, of course — her heart refused to obey his hands. Bit senseless, my dad reckoned, breaking her open when there was no longer a chance. But it's worth it, isn't it?
Her face is the wrong color, too pink, like she's stepped out of the bath, and the coffin's not her style. Especially the handles. She wore silver, not gold. Nobody else seems to have noticed — nobody's seeing anything; it's as if they're wading through syrup. Have forgotten how to be real.
I was hanging out with my friend Seb while it was happening, all that wrestling to save a life. Four days ago, that's all it's been. We were listening to music. Radiohead. Could've been worse, I guess, more disrespectful — could've been watching reality TV, or downloading porn. The problem is, I didn't feel it. I've tried, these last few days, to imagine that I sensed something, anything, the moment she left: a stab of pain, some kind of vision. But I didn't. I felt nothing last Thursday afternoon, September 1st, at 4:27, the instant that Anna Ellis, my mother, died.
* * *
Body lowered into the ground. Vigilant sparrows. Spring rain. Mud.
* * *
I feel nothing, taste nothing, not even these chocolate éclairs. Aunty Rachel, my mom's sister, made them because she knows they're my favorite, but the icing's a paste sticking my tongue to the roof of my mouth. Aunty Rachel's standing over by the open window in our living room, leaning into her brother, my uncle Carl, the curtains billowing around them like protective sails.
An old woman's staring at me but I don't know who she is. She frowns as I spit the éclair into my hand and take a look at it — hey, if people can tell fortunes from cats' guts — and thrusts a napkin in my face.
This is not right. There are people I don't know at my mother's wake.
"Hello, Will," she says. Her hair is the color of smokers' fingers. "I'm your great-aunt," she whispers too close.
"Joy," she's saying in my face, like an insult, and I want to say, Fuck off, Joy, what a stupid name to have at a wake. But Dad's not far away, leaning into the living room wall like it's the only thing that will hold him up, his suit all corrugated with grief.
"Joy," she says once more to test me, and "The Lord moves in mysterious ways."
I step back, but there's someone behind, hedging me in. "This is Faith," says Joy. "She's your great-aunt too."
Faith grips my arm. Her hair has the same kind of stain. "My, haven't you grown. You must be at least eighteen."
"Seventeen," I correct.
Fingertips in my bicep, she murmurs, "Anna's safe now."
I jerk away from her — it's easy, she's so small; they both are, these witches. They're the kind of sad old ladies who skulk around other people's deaths in preparation for their own.
"Safe now?" I ask, full of jagged rib cages and last thoughts, as a car steered by a drunk driver smashes into her life. Safe as houses? Safe as death?
God, Mom, where are you? Are you disappointed I'm crap at all this? You never told me what to do when you died, but you should've, because it's the only thing we can be sure of. Death gets all of us in the end. And then I see her, this girl, in the light by the window, long hair, eternal legs, generous smile she's trying to hold on to as she talks to my dad. She looks about my age and she's in a white dress — didn't anyone tell her you're meant to wear black to a wake? She touches her fingers to her lips and suddenly, I can taste chocolate, like a betrayal. I am the king of bad timing. Only a monster could think of love.
* * *
Hags around a cauldron. One drops in eye of newt and hemlock as the other one stirs. Steam rises from the potion and forms question marks in the sky. The witches are wearing black T-shirts, one saying Joy, the other Faith. They have hair the color of a bruise and they're pointing at an angel, its wings in full flight. An angel with that girl's face. The one who wore white to a wake.
* * *
It's Adam. He's looming over me, smelling of airports. I stretch my legs against the sheet, and my feet touch the end of the bed.
"Hey," I say, my eyes struggling to meet the world and my brother's face. He's tanned and his hair is even shorter than when I saw him last. Must have been six months ago — he was standing next to Mom, waving as he climbed into her car, heading for the airport to fly to Malaysia, and now he's sitting on the edge of my bed. "You didn't make it."
"I tried, but I couldn't get a flight."
My mouth tastes of doubt. Adam always gets what he wants, including seats on fully booked flights. His phone rings, the theme to the X-Men — he digs it out of his jacket and turns it off. "So, how was it?"
"Weird." I close my eyes again. All I can see is that girl, white wings and her white dress.
"I spoke to Dad on the phone. He said Nan organized the whole thing, wake and all, bloody Catholics. How's Dad anyway? Is he all right?"
"How can you tell?"
Dad leaned against our living room wall all yesterday afternoon at the wake and let people come to him. He never said a word to me the whole frigging time except Your mom would've liked those flowers. Twenty-four years they were married — was that the best he could do?
As Adam leans on my bed, his hand lands on the open copy of Macbeth, which I'm studying in Lit. "Are you okay?"
"I'm in love," I hear myself saying, the words spilling into the gap between us. He looks at me sideways, and there's something about the curve of his jaw, the hazel of his eyes — I get a jolt of Mom in that casket, green eye shadow, leering great-aunts, a sensation of shrinking away from my skin. I swallow hard. "Anyway, how's okay meant to feel?"
"Jesus, I don't know. Keep expecting her to walk in that door and ask me how my flight was."
"How was your flight?"
"Smart-ass." He's shaking his head, like a fly's trying to land on it. "Long. Boring. I kept thinking about ..."
He slumps forward, all six feet of him, and stares at the floor, at a stack of books, or maybe at nothing.
I feel him shift on the edge of the bed, the aftershock. "You know, she never once talked to me about dying."
"Don't be so frigging morbid, Will."
"I'm not. I just meant ... I don't know."
Adam's shoulders roll forward as he prepares to leave. The sleeve of his jacket is ripped.
"That's not true," I say. "I'm pissed off."
There's agreement in my brother's face but not the kind that I seek. "I mean I'm pissed off because nobody talks about what matters, not even when someone dies."
"As if that would help."
"I think it could."
Adam's shaking his head. "Still the same old Will."
I turn away from him. I don't need this right now — Adam bringing his version of me in here, using it to hem me in. A six-year head start doesn't give him a monopoly on the truth.
"You want to know what matters, Will? It's this." He shoves his hand in his pocket and pulls out a wad of foreign notes, Malaysian I guess. He's unmoving above me except for his fist that clings to the fan of money, and I figure he's got to be joking as we focus on it, both of us held by its spell, its damp, used odor. Beyond it, my brother's face begins to loosen. "It was a shitty flight," he says, chucking the money on the bed. "I'm going to get some breakfast, see if Dad's up. You coming?"
I roll back over toward the wall. I want him out of here. There's no space for him, for anything, except this throbbing. A thick cord of grief winding itself around me.
* * *
I pull out a notebook I keep under my bed in the old wooden box my granddad gave me when I was little, before he died. He kept old postcards in it, of palm trees and deserts from the Second World War. One day he took them out to the garage and dumped them all into the recycling bin. When he was finished, he handed the box to me and said, "Keep something useful in this, more useful than these."
On a clean page in my notebook, I write what Macbeth says at the end of the play, when he finds out his wife has died: Life's but a walking shadow ... a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
* * *
Night collapses on the sixth day. The house is silent. Dad and Adam have gone to buy pizza — Mom was the one who cooked. The only meal Dad can do is a roast, but we've already had that twice since she died.
I have lived six days beyond my mother.
I want to smell her. I go into my parents' room, Michael and Anna's room. Her scent is more concentrated in here than anywhere else in the house. The room is unaltered from what I can see as I lie on their bed, the bed where they made me — they don't seem the type to do it in the kitchen. These are not the thoughts I came in here for. On her bedside table is a book, maybe the last she ever read. It's called Meditations by Marcus Aurelius and there's a bookmark stuck in a page where some of the sentences are underlined. One of them is stark as a premonition: All of us are creatures of a day; the rememberer and the remembered alike.
I close the book and shroud myself in their duvet, my head on the pillow, on her side. As I inhale her I sift through the mix for nameable smells — vanilla, paper cases peeled off muffins, the generic scent of soap — my nose dislodging a hair, the red of old blood. I wind it around my finger till it begins to turn the end purple. Tough stuff, hair. I jump up and go over to their closet where all her clothes are still hanging and plunge my face into them, but I don't cry. Not even when that blue dress slips from its hanger, the dress she loved wearing to the beach, the one that made her merge with the sky. I tuck it under my arm, unhook the white plastic hanger, and snap it clean in half like a wishbone.
The crumpled duvet gives the dress shape, a body, different from hers, as I lay it out on the bed and return to the closet. I used to hide in here when I was small, it's deep enough to forget who you are. And next to a box of tangled scarves I find what I came for, at least it seems that way as I cradle it in my hands.
My mother's camera.
She taught me how to use it as soon as she was sure I wouldn't drop it, though she'd always hover and make me wear the strap around my neck. Of course I did drop it, once. At the zoo. She gasped, and for a second I saw her, this woman who loved her camera; and then the moment was gone, she was my mother once more. It was ages before she trusted me with it again.
Her Canon AE-1 SLR.
I stroke the dent next to the case clip, the dent that I made, and I feel the camera's familiar weight. I know she'd want me to have it but I can't ask. Dad might say no. He might return it to the back of the closet — whether he's capable of this, I can't be sure. I look through the viewfinder at my parents' room, at its smallness, everything leaning in on itself through the lens. His and her side of the bed. My finger hurts as I grip the body of the camera, so I unwind the hair; it curls into a question mark on my mother's pillow and leaves a lacing of white dents on my skin. I go to take a picture of it — there's still enough sun coming in through the window, my mother always preferred natural light — but I can't see the hair through the lens. It's as if it doesn't exist at all.
The front door bangs open. My brother's voice. I grab the dress and the camera and head for my room where I shove my mother's stuff into the box under my bed.
I never called her Mother before she died.
* * *
Dad sends me out for some cigarettes after dinner, and as I walk past the church opposite Degrazis' neighborhood grocery store there's a sign outside: Life's short, God's infinite.
I spit into the gutter. Then I cross the road to buy Dad his cigarettes.
* * *
My father sleeps next to a gap. My mother lies in the earth. Adam's dreaming of the big deal. Me, I may never sleep again until I do what must be done.CHAPTER 2
Dawn's leaking into my room when I wake up. There's a mynah bird tapping on the window and a faint smell of smoke. My ass is itchy. I get this far before I submit to the sensation of being cored and see my mother being lowered into the ground. In a box.
Better than yesterday. At least now I know what I have to do.
In this world there are answers for all kinds of shit. All you need is the right question.
I pull out my notebook, most of its pages still blank, and write:
1. Why did she die?
Because she got slammed by a car going too fast, weighing too much, filled with the velocity of somebody not giving a damn about other people's lives.
I saw an old guy get hit by a Volvo once, down by the shops. Saturday afternoon, about to sink my teeth into a spearmint chocolate chip ice cream cone, and this guy's flying, doing a slow-motion twirl. The weirdest thing was his shoe. It had a life of its own, like a leather bird riding the thermals in an upward spin, his foot reaching toward it, never quite making it, all so slow and graceful and not quite Saturday afternoon, and then the thud of him landing behind the car. The stillness in the wake of it, before I dropped my ice cream and people remembered that they were meant to help. And then it landed. The old guy's shoe. Dropped between a woman carrying a baby and a guy in a suit, and I remember thinking, Lucky no one got hurt.
Don't know what happened to the old guy in the end. I took off telling myself I was too young to be of help — at twelve I knew nothing about death. But what does anyone know? Unless you're dead, but hey, that's the biggest joke of all. Unless you believe those people who say they died, entered the tunnel, saw the bright light, and came back. Like holding your breath underwater till your lungs become liquid, your arms all limp, and you think, it's up to me now, I can choose. But you can't, your body fights you and says, Don't think I'm going to let you go.
It's just oxygen, of course, your lungs screaming out for it. Scream hard enough and you see white light.
Maybe I have the wrong question:
2. Is it terrifying, the moment of death?
We're not having roast tonight, or pizza. We've been invited to someone's place, for sympathy food. Adam's been out all day catching up with people; on the way back he visited Mom's grave. He's in the kitchen, his face grappling for control, when I come in. "Weird, when you think about it. She'll spend more time in that one place than anywhere else."
"Now look who's getting all deep," I say to smooth the unease of his confession, but all he does is curl his lip, and say, "Prick."
Dad saunters in as Adam goes out.
Dad in one of his talkative moods. "Will."
He's wearing the green sweater Mom gave him last Christmas. He doesn't like it much — being so tall, he says it makes him look like a tree. We're all tall, a skyscraper family. At least in that sweater he looks as if he's got someone taking care of him. Wonder how long that'll last. "So, whose house are we going to?" I ask.
"He was at the wake," says Dad, heading into the hall.
I follow. "Don't remember him."
"He was with his wife and daughter." Dad flattens his hair in the mirror. Mom always did that for him. "I told you about him. He used to go out with your mom."
"We're having dinner with Mom's ex?"
They say loss does strange things.
"Well, sort of. He was also a friend of mine."
"Why don't I know them?"
"It was a long time ago, before you were born."
Adam comes in wearing an ironed shirt. He checks out my old jeans and a T-shirt Mom bought me. At least Adam dresses himself. "I'm meeting some friends for dinner."
"What about Ray's?" Dad asks.
"I'm not coming. I don't even know them." Adam rakes his fingers through his hair in front of the hall mirror. He looks at his watch then back at Dad. "Tom Wallace is picking me up in about ten minutes. You remember Tom."
"Yes, I think so. You drive, Will, you need the practice. Not long till you go for your license now."
Dad drops the keys into my hands and heads out the front door.
"Nice work," I say, nudging past Adam.
"What?" He raises his eyebrows and goes back to realigning his hair, his reflection blocking mine, except for a slice of my head. He is my brother but he is closed to me.
Excerpted from The Beginner's Guide to Living by Lia Hills. Copyright © 2009 Lia Hills. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
LIA HILLS is the author of the award-winning adult poetry collection, the possibility of flight, and the translator of Tom is Dead by Marie Darrieussecq. She lives in Melbourne, Australia. The Beginner's Guide to Living is her first novel.
Lia Hills is a poet, novelist and translator. Recent publications include her award-winning poetry collection, the possibility of flight. Her translation of Marie Darrieussecq’s novel, Tom Is Dead, was published by Text in 2009. Born in New Zealand, Lia now lives in Melbourne.
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