The Axiom Of Choice by David Corbett, short story book cover artwork

“The Axiom Of Choice” by David Corbett

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When he finds his wife and his student in the bedroom, he can’t say he’s surprised. Everything led to this point just as everything in life tends to lead to a point. It didn’t matter the choices they’d made. And as he’s happy to explain, in his own philosophical expertise, how the series of wild events began.

About the Author
David Corbett, a contributing editor for Writer’s Digest, is the author of five novels (including 2015’s The Mercy of the Night), the story collection Thirteen Confessions, and the writing guide The Art of Character. Patrick Anderson (Washington Post) described Done for a Dime as “one of the three or four best American crime novels I’ve ever read.” George Pelecanos remarked, “Corbett, like Robert Stone and Graham Greene before him, is crafting important, immensely thrilling books.”
The Axiom Of Choice

As I sat here waiting, wondering how to explain things, I caught myself remembering something often said about set theory.

I teach mathematics at the college, I’m sure you know that already. It’s sometimes described—set theory, I mean, excuse me—it’s oftentimes described as a field in which nothing is self-evident: True statements are often paradoxical and plausible ones are false. I can imagine you describing your own line of work much the same way. If not, by the time I’m finished here, I suspect you will.

I see by your ring you’re married. Perhaps you’ll agree with me that marriage, like life itself, is never quite what one expects. I’ve even heard it said that, sooner or later, one’s wife becomes a sister or an enemy. I’m sure for a great many men that’s true.

I’d put it differently, however. Again, if I can borrow a phrase from my area of expertise, I suppose I might say of Veronica’s essential nature—her soul for lack of a better term—what Descartes said of infinity: It’s something I could recognize but not comprehend.

Now, I can imagine you thinking, given what you saw in our bedroom, that such a statement reveals a profound bitterness, even hatred. I assure you that’s not the case.

But there’s no getting inside another person, no rummaging around inside a wife’s or a lover’s psyche the way you might dig through a drawer. The gulf between me and my wife, her and Aydin—that’s the name of the young man whose body you found beside my wife’s: Aydin Donnelly, he was my student—the gulf between any two people may feel negligible at times, intimacy being the intoxicant it is, but the chasm remains unbridgeable.

It has nothing to do with facts—my God, who has a greater accumulation of facts than a married couple? No, I’m not speaking out of bitterness. On the contrary, I feel humbled by this observation. What I mean to say is this: If you simply bother to reflect on the matter seriously, or just open your eyes, absolutely everything, even oneself—and especially one’s wife—remains mysterious.

Veronica and I met at university—which school isn’t important, one of those giant Midwestern diploma mills attended by middle-class untermenschen on the cusp of discovering their utter ordinariness. I was finishing my doctoral studies in math, she was pursuing music.

Veronica’s instrument was the viola. There’s a joke about violists, perhaps you know it. What is the difference between a coffin and a viola? With a coffin, the corpse is on the inside. Tasteless, I know, considering the circumstances. What I mean is that Veronica, for most of her life, lacked the expressiveness, the passion, to be anything but merely functional as a performer.

She had an excellent memory and commendable dexterity, she fooled a great many people. But there was a wooden, colorless quality to her playing that no amount of practice could transform. She realized early on that she would be a teacher, like me—and yes, when I spoke of utter ordinariness, you didn’t think I was excluding myself, did you?

We met the way most graduate students do—in the library. I wonder how many campus marriages find their beginnings in the stacks. Such a strangely erotic locale—the order, the stillness, it cries out for something heated and spontaneous, something messy. But we did not desecrate the library. Not Veronica’s style.

By that point she was already recognizing her limitations. The company of other music majors only hammered that home, so she steered clear of the music building, holidayed over to the main library to study, and one day by chance took up position across the table from me. Luck is the heart of romance, they say, not fate. I cannot dispute that.

I was torturing myself in preparation for my orals. Almost every great mind in mathematics did his most creative work by the age of eighteen. I was twenty-five at that point—a confirmed mediocrity, struggling with all my might not to become a joke.

Veronica plopped herself down not three feet away, spread out her sheet music for compositional analysis—it was Bach, of course. Musicians uncertain of their talent always gravitate toward the Baroque: so dense, so artificial. Music to hide behind.

I know I sound callous but that’s not at all my intent. The state in which you found Veronica is hideous. Perhaps you took the time to look at some of the pictures around the house. If so, you saw that she was quite lovely in her way, bigger than is considered fashionable, I suppose, but when has fashion ever understood women? I found her softness beguiling. I’m hardly svelte, obviously, but it’s different with men.

Such a shy, defenseless smile—that’s what I noticed when I glanced up that first time and saw her across the table. Of course, like everyone else in that library she was frightened, overwhelmed, miserable with doubt, but she looked at me so sweetly. I wasn’t one to believe love could solve my life but I was overdue for a little kindness.

We popped out for coffee, the ritual chat, feeling each other out, where we came from, where we hoped to go. The kindness, I learned, was genuine. Soon enough, we were inseparable.

It’s hard to describe to people who’ve never known it, the pressure, the grinding isolation of graduate school. A great many campus marriages are formed from the simple need for companionship and commiseration. Ours was. We were lonely, we tended not to get on each other’s nerves, we respected each other’s privacy. The next thing we knew, five years had gone by. I received my position here at the college, she found herself a chair in the local chamber orchestra.

Eventually, as all couples do, we had our problems. Veronica was too self-conscious to genuinely enjoy sex—that may seem overly personal, what my students refer to as Too Much Information, but I’d be surprised if you hadn’t been waiting for me to bring it up.

What I mean is, abandon was not a quality she possessed or aspired to possess—that too showed in her playing. I won’t psychoanalyze her for you, drag out all the family trash, but shame factored heavily in her upbringing. She could pet and kiss and cuddle, I never felt a lack of affection, but—excuse me, again, if this sounds coarse—good old-fashioned fucking was simply too intrusive.

To her credit she didn’t find my appetites perverse or unwholesome. She did not love me less because of what I wanted.

So—a sister or an enemy. I suppose one could say Veronica became my sister, though that’s both too cynical and too superficial a way to put it. It was decided I would have my affairs, as long as they remained dalliances and not devotions. She would keep her home, which she suffered over as only a woman can. The marriage would remain intact.

You may think me a monster at this point. But reflect on what I just said: We reached an understanding—how many couples fail or refuse to do that? Part of that understanding was that I would stay. I did. Right up until the end.

You’re probably asking yourself: How did this man ever get anyone but his wife to so much as look at him? Trust me, I’m not unaware of my homeliness. I used to wear a beard as a sort of disguise, it gave me a bearish, rakehell appeal, or so I liked to think. But I’m not blind to what an unlikely Lothario I make.

I’ve even talked about it with some of the woman I’ve been with, a few of whom were by any objective standard completely out of my league. And I’ve heard this response often enough now to consider it more than likely to be true: A great many men simply don’t like sex. They either find it a messy obligation involving smells and feelings they abhor, or a kind of athletic event at which their prowess must never be questioned.

Well, I don’t share such inhibitions, and I’m not shy about my pleasures. It’s amazing how appealing that can be to a woman. Especially a woman who, like me, is cheating on her spouse.

Now, I can imagine what you’re thinking. Anyone who walks away from the scene you discovered in my house, then talks about his sex life, his lack of inhibition, his pleasures—not to mention set theory and Descartes, for God’s sake—you have to wonder: Is he demented? Is he a sociopath? Or, on a far more rudimentary level: Is he lying?

I assure you, I am not deranged, nor do I lack a conscience. As for lying—well, that’s always an interesting question, isn’t it?

I’m sure you’re aware of the Liar’s Paradox. Consider the statement, “I am lying.” If the statement is true, it means I’m not lying when I say I’m lying, which is nonsense. Contrarily, if the statement is false, it means I’m lying when I say I’m lying and thus I’m telling the truth. Again, ridiculous. I can only imagine every cop in the world knows that one, not to mention the average nine-year-old.

You may not know this, but paradoxes like that were the bane of mathematics at the turn of the last century. Damn near brought the whole field to a screaming halt. And paradoxes—or antimonies, as they’re now called—are always the sort of thing that most fascinate my students, which brings us at last to Aydin.

The name’s Turkish. Curiously enough, it means “enlightened.” I told you his surname: Donnelly. A particularly intriguing American mutt—workaholic father of famine Irish stock, Turkish-German scold for a mother. All that unruly black hair, those Levantine eyes, the bucket-shaped head and nail-driver hands. Even his slump was oddly beguiling—he looked burdened.

Aydin attended my course on the history of mathematics—an easy “A” for those in the humanities needing a science credit. I don’t fool myself regarding my function on campus. It’s a small liberal arts college of no particular reputation, a dumping ground basically for those with little promise beyond money. My job is to help them toward a degree so they don’t further embarrass their families. A little calculus, maybe an intro to stat, remedial trig for most of them—all topped off with a course on the history of mathematics, the philosophy of science. It’s about as much rigor as the poor darlings can stand.

Aydin stood out to the extent he actually made an effort to pay attention. Believe me, that’s enough to endear a student to a teacher these days. I looked forward to his visits to my office. His conversation, if not exactly profound, at least displayed some fire.

He developed a fascination with what is known as the Axiom of Choice—I assure you this is relevant. It’s a fundamental principle that states we can create a new set by choosing one item from each of an infinite number of other sets.

There, simple to state, but the idea is implicitly fantastical: Who would do the choosing? When would he finish? Never, of course, by definition the task is infinite. The physical universe would come to an end before the selection process was complete.

But by assuming that the task can be accomplished, by acting as though we can step outside time and treat infinities like common objects, we find ourselves capable of constructing the lion’s share of modern mathematics. Deny ourselves this trick, we close the door to much of what we have accomplished for the past century—and these achievements are astonishing, not just in abstract mathematics but the applied sciences.

All those little geniuses out on the quad, listening to their iPods or thumbing away on their ubiquitous phones—not even gizmos of that order would be possible without the Axiom of Choice, let alone recent progress in advanced circuitry and theoretical physics.

It’s one of the great ironies of modernity. By turning a blind eye to an intellectual sleight of hand, we have created some of the greatest tools for understanding the physical world in human history.

All of this fascinated Aydin, but he was inclined to fuzzy thinking—one of those easily distracted, poetic souls who get snarled in a confusion and think they’ve beheld the profound.

For him the Axiom of Choice got all mixed up with other things, like the notion that real world success necessarily results from self-delusion. That appealed to him in a fundamental way, something to do with his father I think. The man’s a securities lawyer in Chicago, very connected, impressively rich. To Aydin, he was a pompous phony.

My point, though, is that the young man obsessed over the ways we fool ourselves, and so the Axiom of Choice became a kind of a symbol for our inescapable self-deceit. We trick ourselves into believing in freedom, for example, when in truth everything’s preordained. We’re hormonal robots, he said, prisoners of biology. All of which is just warmed-over Platonism. And as Plato himself so deftly pointed out, the inescapable implication is that we’re all just shadows.

But Aydin took it a step further. If choice is an illusion, then there’s also no responsibility. If you had him here in this chair, not me, that’s what he’d tell you. Even murder is nothing more than the turning of a page in some inscrutable book.

And there’s the greatest paradox of all, he’d say: We convince ourselves we’re free in order to escape the terror of realizing it doesn’t matter. The game’s been over from the start.

This sort of thinking is very common among the young. They worry themselves sick about authenticity because they sense themselves to be, at root, fundamentally artificial. For Christ’s sake, they haven’t lived yet, what is there to be authentic about? I try to tell them that. In particular, I tried to tell Aydin. But he was obsessively earnest the way only a twenty-year-old of middling intelligence can be, which is why he appealed so much to Veronica.

Veronica felt a special devotion to wanderers. If you were lost, she found you. And Aydin was desperately, irretrievably lost. You could see from the scars on his wrists he’d made a hash of at least one suicide attempt. That too seems to be required for modern adolescence, like computers and tattoos. But it only stirred Veronica’s pity.

They met when she stopped by my office late one day, picking me up for some dinner engagement with the director of the chamber orchestra—God, there’s something I won’t miss. She paid poor Aydin little mind, being preoccupied, but there was no mistaking his reaction. He stared at her as though she were literally incandescent.

Here again, you may think me a monster, but I found Aydin’s infatuation the perfect solution to a problem. He could be the pet Veronica craved, a way to nourish her insatiable need to be involved. God knows Aydin was in desperate want of a woman’s involvement. Maybe I felt guilty—I was having a particularly heated liaison at the time, a woman in Veronica’s string section no less.

How did I hatch my plan? I invited Aydin over to dinner—there, simple, like sin itself. And all I had to do was wait for him to reach for something, expose those tortured wrists—Veronica’s eyes popped like flashbulbs.

After we cleared plates and put on the kettle for tea I feigned a need for some air to give them the necessary privacy. I knew Aydin would take care of the rest. He’d say it was predetermined.

You’ll find this absurd but I honestly did not foresee their becoming sexual. Oh, I didn’t doubt they might come to exchange some tenderness, and I could well imagine poor sad Aydin planting his face between Veronica’s ample tits to weep. But sex?

As I said, I recognized my wife but did not comprehend her. The shame surrounding her body, her uneasiness with anything untidy—well, apparently that had far more to do with me specifically than either of us realized.

That wasn’t all I didn’t see coming. Veronica lost weight. Her playing improved dramatically—she gave a solo recital of the Sonata Pastorale and seemed a different person during the performance. She blossomed, became the woman she’d secretly wanted to be all along. And she had Aydin, not me, to thank for that. She calmed him down. He made her feel needed.

* * * * *

Now, if I were you, I’d hear all this and be thinking: Here’s a man who thought he had life figured out, an understanding wife, a slice on the side—do people still say it that way?—every need gratified. Then he discovers that in fact he had it all wrong. Not just that, but his wife’s aversion to good old-fashioned fucking, as he put it, was really just revulsion for him. How humiliating. Must’ve royally pissed him off.

I wouldn’t fault you for jumping to such a conclusion. But you’d be wrong.

I loved my wife. I was happy for her. I was pleased she’d solved the riddle of her sexual indifference, even if it was less than flattering to me. As I said, I knew how to find gratification elsewhere. We should all be happy, the world being what it is.

And no, this isn’t where my wife stopped being a sister and began life as my enemy. That would be ironic, yes, but what actually occurred was even more ridiculous: I lost all interest in other women. As a kind of penance, a way to own my faithlessness, I shaved off my beard. All of which, of course, was secretly a way to prepare myself for returning to Veronica’s affections.

Like some character in a farce I began to long for her in a way I never knew I could. But she would not entertain my interests there—who could blame her?

Even so, I wanted to be worthy of her when her liaison with Aydin finally ran its course. And yes, I believed that was inevitable. Veronica and I would rediscover each other. I knew that as certainly as I knew anything. What I didn’t anticipate was how it would occur, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

* * * * *

We actually managed to live agreeably, the three of us, for nearly a year. I grew into my newfound humility, even as Aydin became prone to fits of indignation—he had rights, don’t you know. Talk about smug.

Thank God Veronica put him straight on such nonsense. This is how it is, she said, you can behave or be alone. After a day or two of miserable fuming he’d come around. But honestly, episodes like that were quite rare. He wasn’t a bad young man. He was just so damn sentimental.

Then Veronica began having these odd pains in her joints. She wondered if it weren’t some kind of arthritis, every musician’s nightmare. Soon her breathing became labored. The nurse at our doctor’s office referred her for a sonogram. The results indicated she had what was euphemistically described as a “complex mass.” It turned out to be Stage IV clear-cell epithelial ovarian cancer. A death sentence.

If you doubt my love for my wife, ask the doctors and nurses at the cancer clinic what sort of husband I was once Veronica fell sick. I’m not bragging—I can think of nothing more hideous than taking pride in being a commendable Joe when one’s wife is dying—but I need to make sure you don’t misunderstand the true nature of what happened. That’s very important to me. And my behavior stood in stark contrast to Aydin’s.

Just when he could have done us all a favor and grown up, he reverted to the most grotesque childishness. Suddenly only he understood what Veronica needed. I was complicating her relationship with the nurses at the clinic. I was confusing her, confusing the doctors, all out of some perverse narcissism. I’ve no doubt he blamed the cancer itself on me, my neglect of her sexually all those years.

Meanwhile, things at home grew increasingly hard. Veronica’s hair began falling out with the chemo and she decided to have it all shaved off. That, combined with the dark patches under her eyes, the grayish tint of her skin—I removed as many mirrors as I could. Then pile on the mental confusion, the lack of balance, the nausea, the pain—such a miserable, pitiless, degrading way to die.

As for music, she wanted nothing to do with it, threw a fit if the radio was on. It reminded her of everything that would never be.

Don’t get me wrong, there were also days when Veronica was incredibly heroic. She could be so outgoing, especially to other patients at the clinic. But yes, she could also be petty and bitter and scared. She was human, for Christ’s sake.

Meanwhile, Aydin seemed to think the tragedy was his. I couldn’t keep him away from the house. Trying to explain that she needed rest only degenerated into screaming matches, so I invariably relented.

Veronica, true to her nature, couldn’t refuse him. She was the one dying but he was the one who needed care. He’d finally become authentic.

I will admit, yes, that infuriated me. But what came next cannot be laid solely at the door of my rage.

Last night, about nine or so, Veronica started screaming suddenly from the bedroom. She’d been asleep and a nightmare woke her—she dreamed she was drowning from the fluid building up in her lungs. She was terrified: Don’t let me die like that, she begged.

I called the on-duty nurse, asked her to talk Veronica down, explain to her what was happening. The nurse told her that no, she wouldn’t drown, most likely she’d die as her organs shut down one by one. It wasn’t a painful way to go, she said.

Veronica snapped back: And how could you possibly know that? By this point, after all the chirpy prognoses followed by one round of bad news after the next, she was convinced absolutely everyone was lying.

She asked me to get my gun and shoot her. She couldn’t take it anymore, she wanted to put an end to it all, stop dragging it out: Kill me, she said. Please. If you love me, you’ll do that for me.

I told her I couldn’t. We needed to see the current chemotherapy regimen through to the end to learn if there was any progress. If not, there were other regimens and even clinical trials, experimental treatments. It was far too soon to give up, I said. But we both knew I was being dishonest. Worse, selfish.

The thing neither of us dared to say? She was going to die and I was not. She’d run out of luck. If I did as she asked, killed her, I’d be surrendering my luck as well.

Perhaps she needed to know I understood what she was going through, what it felt like. Perhaps she wanted vengeance on the thousands of humiliations I’d inflicted on her during our marriage. Perhaps both. Regardless, I saw the demand as unfair. I felt sorry for her. But I refused to give up the rest of my life for her.

What a miserable night. Sleep was out of the question—we talked, we argued, we wept. She remained afraid and ready to die. I remained unwilling to oblige her. All the while, we both danced around the real issue lying there between us.

But something else happened too. I’ve already said I recognized Veronica but did not comprehend her—and once her connection with Aydin took hold I didn’t entirely recognize her either.

Well, that night, as I faced her hour after hour, trying to reason with her, trying not to get swallowed up by the despair that was dragging her under, my lack of recognition became complete. The chafing voice, the vacant eyes. The hollowed-out ruin her face had become. I no longer saw her there. I saw someone else. I saw myself.

Come morning, Aydin appeared. The night had taken its toll, I’m sure it showed. He asked what was wrong and I simply lacked the wherewithal to make up a lie.

He was horrified—not at Veronica’s wanting to die but my refusal to do what she wanted. He called me a weakling, a coward. How could I let her continue to suffer?

Of course, the real question was: How could I continue to let him suffer? He couldn’t bear the sight of her misery anymore. He wanted it over with. Christ, who didn’t?

I wouldn’t let him in. He flew into a rage right there on the porch—neighbors peeked out past their curtains at us—but this time I refused to bend.

He wasn’t used to being denied. Incensed, he said that before she’d fallen ill, Veronica confessed that she intended to leave me, divorce me, rid herself of me once and for all. She’d come to despise me, then he rattled off all the things she loathed about me, how cold, how resentful, how selfish, how predictable I am. How ugly in every conceivable way.

To have this shouted in my face, by a boy, after the night I’d just spent—especially while harboring the ridiculous illusion that, had Victoria’s luck been different, she would have returned to me—I will admit, I did not respond wisely. I’m sure you know this, sure the neighbors told you. I shouted right back that, if he didn’t leave, I’d kill him.

He shambled off, seething. An hour or so later I had to step out. Veronica was short of Fentanyl patches, I needed to run to the pharmacy.

It’s hard to describe the level of distraction I’ve been operating under, one minute panicked into focus, the next I’m standing somewhere, at the sink or in a parking lot, completely oblivious to how much time has passed. And today, as I wandered around the drugstore, God only knows how long, I got lost in my own self-pity, wondering how I could have been such a fool not to grasp Veronica’s true feelings. I miss things, is what I mean to say, things I should have noticed. Like the fact that, when I drove away from the house, Aydin was nearby, watching me leave, probably hiding in the park down the block.

When I got back home from the pharmacy I could feel it, the stillness. I called out. The house swallowed up the sound.

Perhaps Veronica let him in, perhaps I forgot to lock the door, like I said I’ve been strangely abstracted of late. I climbed the stairs, went to the bedroom, found them. I guess it was his turn to calm her down, her turn to make him feel needed.

She must have told him where I kept my gun—I didn’t see any signs he went scavenging for it himself. Of course, he botched it, like he had before, only now he’d included Veronica. He’d fired one round into her skull, but couldn’t bother to see if she was actually dead before turning the gun on himself. That would have sullied the drama. He was very sentimental, like I said, yes, which is just another way of saying he was incompetent. But what’s the point of competence if you’re never responsible?

I’m sorry. I sound angry. Bitter, yes. I suppose I am. But not at Aydin. Not at Veronica. Not anymore.

I stood there wondering: What to do? I could leave, pretend I’d never come home, let a few hours pass so they could lie there like that until they finally got what they’d wanted—would that be denying them anything?

Or I could call 911, have the paramedics rush over, fuss over them, dash them off to emergency, maybe even save them. For what—so Veronica could suffer even worse than before, only to die in a few weeks regardless? And Aydin—say he lived, what would he wake up to? Imagine it. Imagine discovering yourself in a hospital bed, instead of hell where you belonged.

I understood that. I understood because I realized that’s how I’d spent every day of my life, finding myself unjustifiably alive, furtively killing everything around me.

I’m a coward, yes. They were right: I’m selfish and shallow and vain and weak. And yet oddly enough—here’s one more paradox for you—it was Aydin, the one who believed in fate, the one who believed that nothing changes, we are who we are, for better, for worse, forever: He was the one who gave me one last chance. The chance to redefine myself.

He’d done what I couldn’t bring myself to do—he failed at it, but why punish him for that? Why punish either of them? I tugged the gun from his hand, then took a moment. I had to collect myself, wait until it wasn’t revenge or disgust or rage in my heart. Maybe it was just one more trick of the mind, the self-delusion that makes the rest possible, but I told myself: Remember, you know what it means to be overdue for a little kindness.

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