This weekend, we have Matthew Pitt’s return to the fiction section. “Ugly American Understudies” is a story about switching places, about possible other lives. It’s a story I’m often drawn to, as Ben and Tish are: the story we make up for ourselves. And its alluring trap. —Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Fiction Editor
“WE MOST APOLOGIZE for error,” explained the porter in English, with a peppy hum of regret. “But you see the uncoupling has occurred.”
They saw. Chains and links joining the trains had been disengaged an hour ago, sending them on separate paths. By now the other car was scaling past cirrus clouds, into thin mountain air, even as this wobblier one braided its way toward shadowy tropical lowlands. Leaving the tour group’s two newlyweds, Ben and Tish, watching their own silver luggage soar above the vanishing point, as they clutched two similar but foreign bags, belonging to “A&S Untershine, Lex and 22nd, Estados Unidos.”
Ben, who found that scorn cleared his head, took the porter to the woodshed. Though he could only bring himself to bray for a few minutes. Truth of the thing was he wasn’t invested in berating the guy. So he and Tish would have to use strange cameras and mascara for a week. So what? After all, the swapped suitcase slip-up had quickly made them the center of their tour group’s sympathy. A boxy Austrian offered malaria pills, saying he had more than enough to spare. Someone from a Korean caravan said to swing by her berth later; she’d packed an extra toothbrush. And that late afternoon’s free (and free flowing) drinks made of lime, sugarcane and anise sealed the pardon.
“Any other trip,” Ben moaned. “But for this to happen on our honeymoon…”
“Is good fortune,” insisted the Austrian. “A testament to the fraud of engineering an adventure. Perfect salute to marriage.”
“Hell to that. It’s clearance for you two to get kinky!” said a bushy-haired man sloppy on cocktail five. “Start rummaging around their bags, man. Maybe they packed frillies and boudoir aids. Now you can give any item a spin with no shame. We sure as hell would.”
“We’re relapsed Catholics,” added the man’s wife—almost incidentally, though not quite.
Before dinner Ben and Tish set the larger of the luggage pieces on their stiff twin berth. Ben hoisted the smaller silver suitcase atop a shared dresser drawer, almost knocking over a decorative flowerpot. Tish eyed the minute, alien flowers inside the pot. They must have been structurally weak—someone had poked a small wooden stick into the soil, then fastened stick to stem with a plastic hairclip.
“Let’s see what we have to work with,” Ben said, unlatching the smaller suitcase.
The woman’s wardrobe (A? S? Which Untershine was she?) fit Tish’s figure perfectly. Even better, it was a trove of budget-unconscious taste. Most of her fellow riders on this train would probably mistake this paint-splattered T for some glorified art smock, but Tish knew better, knew it’d been snared off the Dolce racks at a higher sticker price than her airfare. How well off was this woman, willing to expose outfits far out of Tish’s means to a rough-and-tumble land? Ben’s temporary clothier turned out to be a massive man. Ben drowned in an alpaca sweater, folds of excess fabric bunching around his thin frame like the skin of a shar-pei. Still: much of the man’s outfits were out of Ben’s means too, clothing he’d long coveted, so who cared if he looked ridiculous, a boy playacting inside his father’s Italian suit? The two paraded around their berth in linen tunics, laughing, concocting characters to match the bag’s chic contents.
“Looking good, Mrs. U. Love your bracelet. Did I buy that for you?”
“Don’t you remember, Mr. U? By the time I knew the jewels in this beauty had come from the Ivory Coast, it was too late to return them. Got so dazzled by the gems, I completely ignored the 6th C of diamond buying.”
“Six? Cut, carat, clarity, color, cost…?”
They hadn’t planned to take this impromptu show on the road. But when Ben and Tish emerged from their berth for dinner, they were met by a series of heavy stares. Were the Americans wearing such transparently ostentatious wealth because such belongings were all they could find? Or had they contrived to pluck the items that would best show them off, and show up the others? And so when Tish announced over an appetizer course that, “Tonight, the parts of the Untershines will be played by us,” and she and Ben began their life together as other people, constructed from suitcases, it put the rest of the tour group at ease. Their fellow passengers quivered with laughter, delighted by the dinner theater and the imaginary couple’s self-satisfied antics. Deciding the “A” stood for Angela, Tish conceived of her Untershine as a character with a steely lack of awareness. “Angela’s” hobbies included mailing dud detective novels back to publishers, underlining how she’d guessed who the killer was by pg. 14. She belonged to the Society of Persons Addicted to Stalking Famous Addicted Persons (SPASFAP). As a dues-paying member she was entitled to check into, and snoop around inside, any detox center for 10% off.
A Spaniard smiled over her glass. “You spend whole days doing this?”
“Our country’s fueled by pharmaceuticals,” Tish-slash-Angela offered. “And I’m not happy Rome is burning. But we still need to blog about it.”
Ben equally bit into his role of S(imon) Untershine, a man who sat on the boards of charities raising funds for already-cured diseases. A man who ate rapaciously, not from lack of willpower, or any passion for haute cuisine, but to spite his GP. “We’ll see if he keeps calling me a hypochondriac,” he pledged, gobbling bullet-shaped peppers and creamy cheeses, “once my heart explodes in his damn exam room.”
Asked the Austrian: “Simon Untershine: Do you worry your countrymen have grown both fatter and more shallow? Lazy and unengaged?”
“No, no. Not me and Angie, at any rate. The Americans we know still take part in a variety of aquatic activities.”
“Well—waterboarding, for one.”
By midnight the tour guide, himself torched with spirits, ventured into the main dining cabin to declare that the party was far from over. Dance music would thump through the speakers all night. Tomorrow the train would wind to the high ankle of the Tropic of Capricorn, where any tour group member—after signing a letter of indemnity, of course—would be free to dive into the falls’ crisp curative waters.
Ben and Tish skirted back to their berth, towel-drying their sweat-moist skin and reviewing the donated items from their fellow riders. Ben wanted to change shirts, but couldn’t bring himself to downgrade into the tacky loaner from that wild-haired Catholic pervert. Sure, it fit better than Simon’s clothes, but the material was cheap, and the garish green of Poison Control stickers. “Look at this swimsuit the Spanish woman slipped to me,” Tish said with a grimace. “About as elastic as a dishrag…smells like one too.” Even the toiletries were second-rate versions of what they found in the Untershine’s baggage. And there was still the second suitcase to bring to light. They unzipped it feeling radiant and dizzy, both like burglars and kids at a surprise party. They poured out the pockets, tossed sheer knotted scarves into the air. Uncorking bottles of codeine-kissed aspirin, they devised a bit where Angela would claim she had lifted the pills from the gym locker of a children’s show host. Then Tish came across a curious item—drapes. After that, salad tongs. Then a shower curtain sealed in a vinyl sleeve. Ponchos A&S wouldn’t possibly need until the rainy season. Jugs of shampoo and hand-washing crystals not much smaller than brandy casks.
The Untershines hadn’t flown down here to unwind for a week. They were here for the long haul. Until now this masquerade had been secretly easy to carry out. The tour group had no clue Ben and Tish’s portrayals were based on muscle memory—that the unseen couple’s habits and cravings only gently eclipsed their own. But A&S were emigrating, abandoning the states. They had taken a train Ben and Tish couldn’t imagine boarding.
Oh of course the two whined before their wedding about how badly they needed an urban getaway, hashed over all they couldn’t wait to escape: the wintry puddles of slobbery slush, cell phone callers dictating their every step in singular present tense. “I’m walking the Museum Mile. Now I’m in line at the smoothie shop on Madison. No they’re out of B12. I’ll get spirulina.” In rare moments they admitted city life had broken down into a grinding game of proving they enjoyed their access to its excess: to restaurants serving salads textured like mulch, not yet outed by media outlets; a perfect collapsible subway bag; a spa whose masseur-concierge topped you off with creosote-cucumber lotion. It hardly mattered if you enjoyed the charms as long as you didn’t stop amassing them.
Though they found this routine fatiguing, neither had ever said a single word about rethinking it. And they never doubted they deserved, and would in time be delivered to, their destination. Would arrive. Would be able to truly enjoy what they now only feigned to. They were almost there. They were always almost there.
“Oh, Untershines. Don’t nod off on us now!” crooned the Austrian, huge fists happily hammering at their berth. “Please come add your maniacal moves to the dancing floor!”
How do you level with yourself with such bright invitations pounding at your door?
The next day’s dawn threw down stones of light. Each rider on the train, reeling from last night’s festivities, wanted no part of it, longed to stay inert. But this hike to the falls was the entrée of the entire excursion. They had a jungle to stroll.
So they all tromped off the train, cold gel packs covering grim brows.
Leading the way were three stocky men no one had seen before. Their machetes may have been for show; the hiking path to the falls was clear. Ben and Tish traipsed over fallen limbs, lines of marching ants, mopping their foreheads and forearms and absorbing the sights. So much valiant growth! At once teeming and withering. Each branch leaden with leaves and curious creatures, pressed down upon by more branches above it, more root systems crying for spoonfuls of sunlight. The jungle floor fungal and rotting with bones and fallen foliage that strove for, but would never touch, the canopy. Just then a shaft of sun pierced the green ceiling like some meal slipped beneath a dungeon door. Ben and Tish glanced at the sun shaft, falling out of line with the group.
“Some fun last night, huh?”
“Wouldn’t have been half as much without us.”
“Us, or whoever we were playing. I never knew you could act.” Tish worried the Untershine’s luggage tag strap. “They didn’t write a unit number on their bags. Do you think they own the whole building?”
“At that location? I can’t imagine. They probably already notified their doorman. He’ll be in touch with us soon to have them sent up the mountain. He’ll just bill them when they return home.”
“If they return.” Tish imagined what caused Simon and Angela to cast off their high-flung lives. Last night, Ben “revealed” it to be Simon’s doing, a rash reaction to a colleague claiming he’d never take such a dramatic plunge, reconstruct his life on whim. Only hadn’t Ben been Ben while playing Simon, exhibiting the same bullheaded stances she’d seen in him? Intent to prove those who thought they had him pegged wrong, even if proving so put him off his own plans. His offer to buy their place flattered but also confounded Tish. In all the Sundays spent lazing in bed, she couldn’t recall once insisting they buy right away. She’d accepted his gesture on faith. Only—before signing the mortgage, he’d come one hesitation away from moving them to Nashville. Before signing, he’d gone on so often about college backpacking days, not knowing what food he’d find, what room would be open, until he reached the town. Was someone’s stray remark at some forgettable lunch the entire reason they were where they were now?
Ben’s ankle gave slightly on a broken rock. He needed to focus more on his steps now, not Tish’s words the night before. Not how she (as Angela) had so glibly described their wedding as a “model of modesty—so modest we forgot it wasn’t just an upmarket date. Wondered why our friends had tagged along!” When they got engaged, he’d laid out options. They could throw every prop and resource into a showstopper wedding, or an apartment he’d found. Not both. She’d opted for the place over the day. Their wedding, she’d acknowledged, was the start of a life, but that “where we live it matters so much more.” Or did he have her line right? Maybe she said: “Where the world sees us living it matters more?” He’d believed her line, at any rate, its delivery, and went to work accordingly: buying to get a foot in the market, bearing condo fees that would keep both bound to jobs they hadn’t particularly wanted in the first place, lock them into longer hours. Keep them apart from the house they were paying for. Continuing to pass out the same business card at parties. And when those ran out, order more.
Back at home they lived in 14H of a high-rise building. Sometimes for sport they chronicled, floor by floor, the fates and fortunes of other “H’s” living above or below their own ceiling and floor, and where their riches stood in relation. The Mortensens, way up in 26H, were true-blue climbers who came from money to boot. Ben and Tish would never catch them. On the other hand they felt certain the Powells, one floor above in reality, were several floors beneath them in prosperity. All bets were off with the gaming console designer in 10H, who still brought in seven figures but would soon be vulnerable to a slew of lawsuits concerning a faulty chip, while the already-graying dot-com upstart in 21H had squandered his largesse, playing billionaire bachelor at a pace his overvalued stock options couldn’t possibly sustain.
Ben, Tish and their belongings resided smack on the high-rise’s middle floor. What about the Untershines? Had they started life on the same floor? Why, with the world’s eyes upon them, and clearly so close to the canopy, were they climbing down now of their own accord? Who embraced the last rung reached as enough, when higher rungs still hung above? Had they lost energy for the pursuit, or had they always spoken honestly about wanting to leave that world behind, make the run a limited engagement?
Step by scuffling step, fog crept in. By noon most of the tourists’ hangovers had sharpened, thanks to bird and monkey shrieks filling the thick air. This made the guide’s incessant, megaphone-blared trivia even more grating. “Our waters rival Victoria Falls in volume and depth.” Last night Ben and Tish had gone to bed fighting a different kind of hangover. Resenting the Untershines for giving up their pursuit of light. Whatever the cause—loss of energy, or found honesty about the roles getting stale—you didn’t limit an engagement like that. But as they peered at pouring sheets of water now, nodding at the guide—“Please note at the top of the falls, a butterfly carved of bone. It is tradition to divers to touch, kiss or bow to the sculpture before they jump…”—Ben and Tish reached silent resolve. They would continue the run. Would happily take the Untershines’ rung on the ladder. Ably step into the abandoned role, understudies poised to become next season’s breakout stars. Come to think of it, the Untershines’ retreat would only nudge Ben and Tish that much closer in their ascent. Seen this way, they should be grateful.
“Why a bone,” Tish cut in.
“Sorry?” asked the guide. “The water roar makes your question unclear.”
“Why a butterfly made of bone?”
“Ah, well, artists’ motives, of course, are capricious. But we believe it is means to warn divers. Not to expect to plunge down unharmed. A reminder, yes, our wings have limits.”
Just then all heads jerked left. A screaming man had leapt over. Enveloped in fog, then the pool, and though that was the last trace seen, he must have survived, since not one companion stopped laughing after his jump. Ben and Tish would be expected to follow that man, and the others. It was precisely what they paid for. The falls looked tamer on the brochures, photos tweaked to make the waters appear gentler, fog halos missing and hissing sprays erased. As the next hour unfolded, unclad divers sprang into the falls, erratic or with grace, unified by terror and dare, knifing into steam as if feeding themselves to gods. Tish and Ben lingered at the fringe, believing themselves ready one moment but not the next, imagining their stuffed suitcases continuing to climb, this moment, without them. The Untershines opening the latches: what would they find inside? Before long it was their turn, and they exchanged a look that assumed they would jump together: breathe fast, swallow hard, each spouse packing a hand inside the other’s as long as possible, until velocity and drag split their grasp.