Oliver nibbles his left lower lip and watches nodes of pale bluish light shiver along the surface of what’s left of his pint. Above him criss-crossed strings bearing crepe-papered lantern-globes representing the full spectrum of primary colors rustle in a light coastal trade. Higher, rows of tiny white light bulbs line the ceiling’s bare beams. Phurst tilts the bowl to his lips, drains the last bit of broth, shoves the porcelain vessel aside, balancing his chopsticks on-rim. Out over the water to the north and west, a host of twinkling lights striped with a few deep-probing beams breaks up the dusk over Espiritu Santo’s Big Bay.
Phurst grunts and shoves back from the table.
Oscar swallows what’s left of his ale.
So then never tell her about that last stretch of opium nights before the Tirante took him north from Pearl Harbor for contested seas, because to tell her is to risk hurting her in a way that she has not been hurt before. To lie is to spare her some needless suffering. Is therefore an act of mercy, kindness—of maybe even love.
Except now, wait:
Supposing the situation were reversed, supposing Betty’d gone and done something like this to him (which, by the way: what if she has? during the lonely months Oliver’s been away at sea? The notion burns, except how could it? How can he suffer with suspicion and still dare not to admit the hideous things he’s done?), is it really true he’d rather never know? Seems sound to posit that, given the choice between hurt and no-hurt, he’d choose to avoid the hurt. Only that word “choice” is the problem, here, no? He wouldn’t really have much of a choice, would he? The supposed “choice”’d already be made for him. She’d choose to spare him all the hurt. So that the question really seems to be, Would Oliver, in his betrayed wife’s position, accept this deal whereby the choice to choose between hurt and no-hurt has been exchanged for the protection from hurt that is no longer his to choose? Oliver’s viscera guess that, given the choice between pain and its absence, he’d rather take the pain than have the ability to do so taken from him. In which case he would rather know, now wouldn’t he?
Only how can he know?
The Oliver who can sit here drumming the fingers of both hands in an obsessed tattoo along converging curves of his lingering stein—and where the hell’s this hostess?—this Oliver, the Oliver who is here in the dingy little Filipino noodle-shop, facing north, lights of naval activity flickering out to sea, the strip aclamour with riotous R&R, this Oliver imagines two other, discrete Olivers in obverse situations:
Well but then there’s the second Oliver who returns home to this same beloved wife and is told nothing, tucks into the very same sheets (possibly even unwashed, though this seems unlikely, Betty Lou being fastidious to the point of light obsession), and comes together with the body (even the soul?) he doesn’t know’s been with somebody else, and so ignorantly reprises what he thinks is the very same joy and wonder of perfect intimacy, enters a euphoria of reunity that he can’t possibly know is tainted and false—and so this Oliver, therefore believes himself still able to experience an unmarred bliss that the other Oliver will never feel again, and by so believing does obtain it—
But still, the original Oliver, old beerless ruminative Oliver, this Over-Oliver here in the Subic-Bay hole with his fingertips more or less pounding their accelerated pattern on the mug, this Oliver thinks he would still rather be the first guy, wrecked by the truth, than the happy incognizant fool.
Somehow Oliver, who shares neither his wife’s Catholicism nor Faith, has this bizarre sense that the answer depends on whether or not there is a God.
A tap on-shoulder rouses him: the waitress bearing foamy ales. No sign of Phurst.…
Depends on God, really. Well, not God. No such Being/ Entity/Thing. But say, an Eye, or a Ceiling, some sort of Limit that tells us whether a thing ultimately matters or not.
Because, now, hold on, wait a second, in spite of what he’s just admitted to himself, Oliver is back to thinking that since there is no giant Eye/Limit/Ceiling or God—he sure as hell’s never seen Him—no all-Seeing Third Party aloft to track the motions of morally purblind men, puttering through their choices and acts and blunders and lies, no one there to bear witness in the way that Oliver here has speculatively done with imagined Olivers #1 and 2—then what does it matter how ugly a lie might look?—There isn’t anyone to see it.
No one to see or know except for the deceiver himself—who’s accountable to Whom? And since this potential-deceiver’s decision therefore comes down to a simple choice—to inflict or spare suffering, right?—can’t it be argued that to take what he’s done and stuff it down into a dark place where it might rankle and burn him for the rest of his years but never threaten to inflict anything on anyone else—specifically his poor little luminescent Betty Lou, who’d get to go on believing in their unblemished utopia, preserved and just as perfect as it had been then, before Sam dispatched him East to serve—well, wouldn’t this be sort of noble, brave, heroic? … No?