The following short story is titled, “Real Life” and appears in my collection of short fiction and poetry, Metacognition:
“Are you nervous?”
I look at Henry. He certainly doesn’t look nervous. He doesn’t sound nervous either, so I try to sound as calm as possible when I reply, “Not really.”
But I am nervous. And excited. My blood feels like it’s buzzing, like a billion bees are buzzing around in my veins, ready to burst through my skin at any second. Surely Henry knows that I’m nervous as hell, never mind what I say.
Dear lord, have I ever been this nervous in my entire life?
Henry takes my hand in his and pecks me on the cheek.
“It doesn’t matter what happens.”
I kiss him back.
“I know it doesn’t.”
But it does matter, I think to myself. I want this more than anything. I’ve worked so hard and all that effort has led to this day, to this hour, and to the next few minutes—minutes that will decide my fate, and the fate of my country.
We’ve had our first Black President. Our first Indian President. Isn’t it about time for the first female President of the United States of America?
Not that gender should have anything to do with it. I’m clearly the most qualified candidate for the job, regardless of my sex. But still, it would be exciting to be the first Madame President . . .
My thoughts are interrupted when Henry points excitedly to the screen.
“We’re calling the race,” the newscaster says, “for Holly Reece, the first woman President of the United States of America.”
Suddenly the room is filled with shouting and cheering and clapping, and I’m just staring at the television with my jaw halfway to the floor, unable to believe that it’s really happening. I am the President-elect of the United States of America.
Henry embraces me, pressing his lips to mine in an excited, passionate
(and somewhat sloppy) embrace.
“Well,” he says as our lips part, “I hope you have a victory speech prepared.”
43 years later
“Come to bed, dear,” Henry says. “You have a big day ahead of you.”
“Just a minute,” I say, and I begin to slowly make my way to the bed. I never imagined that it would be this difficult getting around in old age. Every inch of my body aches. It’s good to still be alive, but it’s tiring, too. With all the stress of running the free world for eight years, I expected to be dead a long time ago.
I crawl into bed beside Henry and when I’m all settled, I pick up the remote control and turn on the television.
I turn on the news and sure enough, there I am up on the screen, forty years younger, shaking hands with the Prime Minister of England.
“President Reece enjoyed one of the highest popularity ratings ever,” the newscaster says. “That popularity continued after she left office. She has continued a life of public service to this day and the hard work she put into bringing peace to the Middle East was recently recognized when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Reece will be making her first public appearance since receiving the award tomorrow afternoon.”
Henry’s hand reaches for mine, and as we hold hands he looks into my eyes. A devilish grin creeps across his face and he says, “I’ve never slept with a Nobel laureate before.”
I kiss him. “And I doubt you ever will,” I say. “At least, not in the way you mean. We’re getting too old for all that.”
He kisses me.
“I’m not in the mood either,” he says. “Maybe tomorrow though,” he says with a chuckle.
“If you play your cards right, maybe,” I say. We kiss again, say good night to each other, and prepare for sleep.
But as I’m right on the cusp of sleep, in that delirious little wonderland where wakefulness and slumber mingle, I feel with absolute certainty that I will not wake up again. What a pity, I think. I was going to make my last speech ever tomorrow! But, oh well. I worked well, I loved well, I lived well. I’m grateful that I’m leaving in my sleep, having done all the things I’ve ever wanted to do and then some. Too many people don’t get to live life as long or as well as I have.
“Goodbye Henry,” I whisper and then my thoughts cease.
My eyes open.
My eyes open.
My eyes are open!
And—and there’s a woman standing in front of me, dressed all in white. And as I look beyond her, I still see nothing but white. Everywhere I look there’s white, except for this woman’s beautiful black skin and rich, brown eyes.
“So there is a heaven,” I say weakly.
The woman laughs.
“You say that every time, Michael.”
Michael? Oh no, I think. There’s been some kind of mix-up. I was supposed to be sent to hell, but they thought I was Michael, and now I’ve taken his place in heaven and he’s probably being tortured down below . . .
Maybe if I come clean right away, they’ll let me stay, I think. So I part my lips and say timidly, “I’m not Michael. I’m Holly Reece.”
The woman laughs.
“Gather your thoughts, Michael. Let it come back to you.”
“I’m not Michael. I’m sorry, but—” and then it starts coming back to me.
I’m not Holly Reece, first woman President. I’m Perry Lamont, the billionaire playboy that owns half the real estate on Mars.
Wait, no . . . no, I’m Harriet Tubman, organizer of the underground railroad, helping usher slaves to freedom.
That’s not right either. I’m Abraham Lincoln. I freed the slaves.
No, wait. I’m Michael Lincoln.
And I have been Holly Reece, Perry Lamont, Harriet Tubman, and Abraham Lincoln at various times. But only temporarily. And not . . . actually.
In reality I’m Michael Lincoln. I sell shoes for a living. I live in a studio apartment by myself and spend most of my days filling out crossword puzzles while watching TV and eating ice cream straight from the carton.
But every once in awhile I come here to feel what it’s like to be someone special, to live a life of glamour, admiration, respect.
As the attendant pulls the cord from the back of my head, she asks how it was.
“It was . . . it was a pretty interesting one,” I say. “A real historic life, to be sure.” I stop and think for a moment. “I didn’t realize Reece was a republican, though. If I’d known that I don’t think I would have chosen her.”
The attendant laughs. “I didn’t realize you were such a staunch democrat.”
“I’m not a real staunch democrat,” I say, “but I’m certainly not a republican.”
“I am,” she says.
“Oh yeah?” I say with a smile. “Well, opposites attract.”
“No,” she says, “they don’t,” and my smile fades.
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