When I Die

I want to die in the midst of something: facedown in my mashed potatoes, shitting on the toilet, one leg in my pants. You will find me there, in the middle of a moment you’ve already lived passed. Somewhere, a star will explode. A parallel universe will collapse in upon itself.

I imagine you grabbing something to steady yourself. A skipped beat of the heart. The icy feeling that washes over you when something that can’t unhappen happens. You’ll try to breathe. You won’t be able to.

I imagine you staggering over to me. You reach out to touch the body and freeze when your fingers meet cold, stiff flesh. You vomit, and the pile of puke rests on the carpet, warmer and softer and more alive than I will be. And you collapse.

When you wake, you are on our couch. Bella is biting your hair, kneading your chest, licking your face, a moving mass of claws, orange fur, and blue eyes. Between sleep and consciousness, it is as if I am still alive. The room smells like me. One of my shirts is on the floor. You have the urge to pick it up and vacuum. There is a glass of water on the coffee table, perspiring from the last of the melting ice. I have forgotten to use a coaster, and you stand up in irritation, grabbing the glass to save the unfinished wood.

Then you hear the crying. You turn to see Molly, my brother holding her, my head clutched to her chest. The glass of water falls from your hand. You don’t feel it shatter over your feet. There is blood.

Sounds bounce off of your brain. People try to speak to you. You cannot hear. But my favorite song plays in the back of your mind, and you go through the motions of your life with it as your soundtrack. Sometimes you hum along.

People stare in the grocery store as you move like a ghost through the aisles, buying all of my favorite things. Your cart overflows. They send someone to help you. You stare at them blankly as they take you to a register. The beep of each item crossing the scanner reminds you of a heart beat. You close your eyes and my face appears. I am saying your name, over and over and over. Someone else is saying your name. They are yelling it. You open your eyes to the fluorescent lights of an overpriced organic grocery store I used to force you to shop at.

“126, please.”

Hand the card over. Get it back. You don’t feel the bags cutting into you, but when you get home there are red stripes across your arms, barely broken skin.

At my funeral you sit at the back. You wear roses in your hair. Everyone stares. Only you know how I loved your hair with flowers in it: my sweet, sunshine girl. When the service ends, everyone leaves to get drunk and pretend to miss me. They will all tell stories of how they love me, how they wish I were still alive. You stay. You walk slowly down the aisle like a bride. You pull the roses out of your hair, pushing the stems deep into the ground. They look like they are growing. You lie on the freshly turned earth, arms eagle-spread, willing every cell in you to die, die, die. The next day, when the priest finds you at my grave your eyes are still open. You are cold to the touch. You are not shivering. Your dress is brown. You are alive.

My mother invites you over for dinner. You go. You do not know what else to do. She serves salmon and asparagus and sweet potatoes, and you are surprised at how quiet the house is. My parents do not fight. My brothers do not crack jokes. Molly’s eyes are swollen, red-rimmed, the color of her hair. You have not cried. When mother brings the chocolate cake out you excuse yourself to the bathroom and leave without saying goodbye.

You take three months off of work. The same amount of time as if we had had a baby. Everyday, you wake up, feed Bella, and walk out the back door, through the yard, and into the mountains. Sometimes, you forget to turn around until you look up and see that the sky is dark. You don’t remember showering, but your towel is damp every morning.

Three months pass, and you begin to work from home. Your boss does not complain because you get twice as much done as you did before I died. You get a raise. You use it to buy two tickets to London. You miss the flight. You do not return the emails or calls of the airlines, hotels, and car rentals. When they send you reimbursement checks you throw them away.

You do not answer Molly’s calls. She shows up at our door. You let her in. She is smiling. You try to smile back, but the muscles in your face won’t cooperate. She tells you you’ve lost weight and look fabulous and that your pale complexion is perfect; what do you do to your skin? You tell her you eat only when you remember and haven’t left the house in weeks. She is horrified. She shows up twice a week and drives you to a bar for drinks with old friends. While they drink cold cocktails you drink room temperature whiskey. With each sip, you imagine you are drunkenly kissing me: rich and smooth, a fiery feeling in your stomach.

One day you wake up and the bed doesn’t smell like me. You squint your eyes at the lump of pillows beside you and cannot see the shape of my body. When you close your eyes to hear my voice, there is silence and the echo of Molly’s laughter bouncing around the walls of your skull. You start to panic. You start to scream. You go to the bathroom and look in the mirror. A skeleton stares back at you: pale and frail, rings of darkness under its eyes. Warm liquid is pouring down your cheeks. You raise your hand to wipe it away. So does the skeleton in the mirror. You remember this is what crying is supposed to feel like.

You go back to work. You remember to eat one meal a day. Then you remember to eat two. You eat three meals a day, and sometimes you’ll have ice cream before bed. You take the pictures of me down from the walls and put them in the trunk at the foot of the bed. You do not open it. Ever.

One day, the new guy in your office asks you to dinner. You do not know what to say. You say yes. The next week he takes you to an Italian restaurant. You wear the green dress I loved. He compliments your eyes. There are six courses. You eat every bite. You feel like you are going to explode. It is a new feeling. He is impressed. When he drops you off at our house, he walks you to the door but does not come in.

The next time you eat sushi. He doesn’t know how to use chopsticks. You surprise yoursalf by teasing him. I used chopsticks perfectly. He stomachs down the raw fish to impress you, but he wants to gag; you can see it in the sip of water he takes to wash down every bite. You order him chicken teriyaki and white rice while you eat sashimi.

This time, when he walks you to the door, you let him in. Bella hisses. She has not seen anyone but you and Molly for over a year. When he bends over to pet her she nips his fingers and stalks off, tail twitching.

He spends the night. In the morning, you wake up in his arms and smell me. You can feel my breath on your cheek. You look over and see my hair, my face, the shape of my body in a sea of sheets and blankets and pillows. When you blink it is gone. This time your heart does not skip. The floor is strewn with clothing, his mixed with yours.

He wakes up and you are in the kitchen making eggs and bacon and pancakes, a cup of steaming coffee delicately balanced in one of your hands. He scoops you into his arms and tells you how wonderful you are. The coffee spills all over you and he swears as it burns his skin, but you are smiling. Your face has remembered how. 

He moves in, and Bella purrs when he comes home, tangling herself up in his legs, tripping him when he walks. It makes him laugh. You love how happy he is. It makes you want to be happy. It makes you want to live.

He asks you to marry him. You don’t know what to say. You say yes. You invite my family. A week before the wedding, my mother calls. She says my brothers and my father cannot make it, but she will be there. Molly is your bridesmaid.

You walk down the aisle, and there is an altar with a priest and a man who loves you at the end of it instead of a grave marked with a headstone and filled with a corpse. You say ‘I do.’ As you walk back up the aisle you pull the roses from your hair, stopping to hand the bouquet of them to my mother. She is sitting in the back. She is smiling. She kisses you on both cheeks and the warm tears running down your faces mix together for a moment. This is how you say goodbye.

You have three children, and give the eldest my name. He grows up tall and strong. Your two daughters look like you, but with your husband’s smiling eyes. They take up all of your time. There are breakfasts and lunches and dinners to make. There are sports and tutoring and art classes and parent-teacher conferences to attend. There are birthdays. There are Christmas’. There are graduations. You only think of me when you pass the trunk full of my pictures. It is at the back of the hallway, at the entrance to the laundry room. Your husband knows what is inside, but does not speak of it. It is the only piece of furniture you kept from the house we once lived in.

When Bella dies, you sneak into our old backyard and bury her in the corner, near the entrance to the trail that leads to the mountains. You sit there under the stars and cry until you hear the squeak of our old screen door. You climb over the stone wall, blind with tears, and run, the cold evening air drying your face before you get to the car.

Your children all move to different states. It is you and your husband alone in a big house. You both retire. One day you pass the trunk on the way to do laundry, and you open it. You go through the pictures one by one. The next day you tell your husband that you want to move. The trucks come to load up the furniture. The house is sold. You put the trunk in storage with your grandmother’s rocking chair. Your new house is in the same state as your daughters, and you spend your days reading books on the porch, taking care of your flower garden, baking, watching your children and grandchildren grow up as you grow old.

You get sick first. Your husband spends every day and every night in the hospital, holding your hand and listening to the heart monitor count down the beats. When it stops he is asleep with his head on your chest, your hand in his hair. He is woken by a nurse who tells him gently what has happened. His spotted hands shake. He blinks tears from his cloudy eyes and holds the lifeless vessel of the body you once inhabited…

 


 

But I am still alive. You are asleep beside me. There is a crinkle between your eyes and a strand of hair caught between your lips. I pull it gently, brushing it behind your ear. It is golden and soft and curls at the edges. Your skin is smooth and warm beneath my hand. You stir in your sleep, moving closer to me. You smell of roses and half-fulfilled dreams. When I die, I want it to be in the middle of something. But I would much rather live here with you.

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