What follows is an excerpt from my recently completed NaNoWriMo novel draft, The Divide. The story takes place in the days immediately before and after the 2016 presidential election, and the national zeitgeist certainly seeps into the plot. However, the story is not about the election per se. It portrays a number of different people on both sides of the widening national divide, and the ways their lives are affected by change and growing instability.
Here, without further ado, is chapter 15 (of 37 chapters in the first draft). The book’s chapters are numbered rather than titled but if you’re a fan of heavily underscored irony, you could call this one “Jump for Trump.”
On the day after the election Charles Liebowitz suddenly woke with a terrible stomach pain. He’d been up until the wee hours watching the horrendous news on TV. Last night it seemed to him that America itself had been stricken with a fatal illness and was sliding inexorably toward death. He couldn’t help comparing the election results to the results of his own biopsy.
Liebowitz knew the Doxycycline he’d been given before his cancer diagnosis would not help his pain. He got out of bed with some difficulty and shuffled to his small kitchen, where he removed a quart of milk from the refrigerator and took several swallows directly from the plastic bottle. His bowels were in turmoil. Before he headed for the bathroom he walked, hunched with pain, to the front door of his apartment, opened it, and picked up his copy of the Times. He took the paper with him into the bathroom.
It was difficult to focus on the front page headlines. They were just printed confirmation of the things he’d heard on TV last night, and those things were difficult to focus on, too. How is it that Donald Trump had won the election? There were apparently a number of theories.
The most common explanation, it seemed to Liebowitz, was that “ordinary” people had been in more distress and had more anger than anyone realized. “Anyone” meaning educated, well-spoken urban dwellers such as himself. But he didn’t think this explanation made complete sense. How could a nation of unhappy, angry people have been hiding in plain sight? Was the country’s political divide so pronounced that one side simply didn’t, or couldn’t, see the other?
He believed that was probably the case.
Liebowitz saw he had a bloody stool. It had been painful to move his bowels, but doing so had made him feel slightly better. He headed back to the kitchen and made himself a cup of tea, sipping it at the table while he continued to stare at the front page of the newspaper.
He found that his thoughts were floating. How was Madeleine, he wondered. His sister was 10 years younger and lived with her husband George in suburban Portland, some 3,000 miles away. It had been two years since Madeleine and George had visited him in New York and he thought it was five years now since he’d made the trip to the West Coast.
He hadn’t seen his niece Allison or his nephew Henry on that trip out west. Allison lived in Southern California and sold real estate while trying to write film scripts. Henry was an insurance executive in Chicago. Liebowitz hadn’t seen either of them since they were still living at home with their parents.
The immediate Liebowitz family had always been small. His grandparents had died in the Holocaust. They had helped his parents emigrate to stay with distant relatives in England before the start of the war; his parents had left for America shortly thereafter. But Charles had only one sibling, Madeleine, and while she had produced children those children now appeared to lead fully separate lives.
Not for the first time, Liebowitz wondered whether he should have married and attempted to start a family of his own. He liked women and had had a few “serious” relationships in the course of his life. In every case, though, it had seemed as though Liebowitz couldn’t cross over some invisible line to a permanent commitment. He liked the life he led and he didn’t want to change. He thought of the three women he had been closest to, and how his inability to commit had produced sorrow and anger in them. He couldn’t feel guilty—he hadn’t meant harm, and he had never been less than honest. Still, the women had been extremely upset with him. He thought now, from the perspective of 70, that he could begin to understand their point of view, their accusations of “waste.” What had he done with himself for all those years, after all? What had he accomplished? Why couldn’t he have had a family, so he could leave some remnant of himself to carry on?
On the other hand, he argued inwardly, why leave a remnant of yourself at all? To what purpose? Why is that thought to be necessary?
These constant, nuanced internal debates had helped to provide Liebowitz with a comfortable living practicing corporate law. There were always multiple considerations to every question. He enjoyed the process of assessing these considerations at length, he always had and he knew he always would. Sometimes he thought that the process of detailed assessment was the only worthwhile thing he was capable of and the only thing that kept him going.
There was one period in his life when he’d submitted to therapy. After the breakup with Lisa, his longest-term relationship, he was told that his habit of minutely assessing the pros and cons of various questions was a classic method of avoidance. It was a way to avoid looking at himself and also a way to evade dealing with whatever he was really feeling.
He had already acknowledged this about himself long before the therapy sessions began but he listened patiently anyway. This was who he was, yes, but he was OK with it.
Liebowitz believed himself to be a kind and considerate person. He had never meant to hurt Lisa or anyone else in his life. He only wanted to be himself.
Well, perhaps it was time he turned his highly rational thought processes toward an assessment of his own situation. He looked at the front page of the Times again, not really seeing it.
If America is dying, he thought, then it somehow seems fitting that I die with it. He supposed it was possible, somewhere far down the road, for the right-wing metastasis in this country to be reversed. Look at Germany and Angela Merkel, now trying to ward off a right-wing resurgence across Europe. Who would have envisioned Germany as the hope of Europe 70 years ago? But any such turnaround in America was likely to happen long after he was gone. Right now, all of the signs indicated darkness. Black people murdered in cold blood by the police, who escaped consequence. Muslims attacked verbally and physically and threatened with expulsion. Rising anti-Semitism and swastikas spray-painted on schoolyard walls.
Dr. Walls seems like a nice young man, Liebowitz thought. He could tell the doctor was trying to keep him from falling into despair, just as he could tell the doctor realized there was every reason for despair. He didn’t need a CT scan. He was convinced the cancer had already spread widely through his body. The question was, though, should he go through the motions? He supposed it was possible his belief was mistaken and the cancer was localized somewhere in his stomach. If that proved to be the case then perhaps the cancer would be treatable. What would it hurt to have the CT scan in two days?
Well, he told himself, it would mean I’d have to go through the next two days knowing what I know and suppressing it. Then I’d have to go through the weekend doing the same thing before I went back to see the doctor on Monday. At which point that doctor would tell me, as gently as he could, what I already know.
I should be proactive, he told himself. Then his thoughts diverged slightly: when had “proactive” become a sanctioned word? He’d hated to hear his colleagues using it when it first appeared, when, back in the 80s? The word had seemed to be utterly pretentious then. It still didn’t seem entirely correct to him, but then he was rather conservative in matters like these.
Not proactive, then. I should take charge of my situation, he told himself. If I lived out where Madeleine does I could request medical assistance. But then I wouldn’t be fully in charge, would I? He took a moment to debate this. You could argue that the patient making the request was in charge, since that voiced request initiated the sequence requested. And yet the sequence was designed and overseen by others. It was a good thing, all in all, and he felt every state should implement it, but it didn’t leave the patient totally in control.
I do want to be in control, Liebowitz told himself. Right now, this Wednesday, November 9, I am in control. I will use that control.
He walked, still with some pain, to the small desk in his living room and extracted a sheet of stationery and a ballpoint pen. He had to stop himself from embarking on a consideration of fountain pens vs. ballpoints—he had a strong aesthetic preference for the former but had settled on the latter as a practical matter of convenience and ease of use.
Dear Madeleine, he began.
I have been diagnosed with cancer of the stomach and I’m afraid the prognosis is not good. I am not disturbed by this and I don’t want you to be either. I do wish we had managed to see each other somewhat more often, but I think we have both had good lives in this country and I have no real regrets.
Please enjoy the rest of your life and try to be as happy and engaged as you can. My best to your wonderful husband and children.
Leibowitz placed the note and pen under his teacup and saucer on the kitchen table. Then he picked up the pen again and scrawled Madeleine’s full name and address at the bottom of the note. He walked back to his front door and unlocked it. Then he turned, walked toward the balcony, slid open the glass door and walked out.
His apartment was on the 12th floor. He looked over the iron railing at the sidewalk below and saw people walking back and forth, zigzagging across the street, entering and exiting his building. He drew back, realizing he would have to spend one more day in this apartment and wait until some point late in the evening or early morning before he could act. It was essential that the sidewalk be clear.