Most people experience the fullness of what it means to be a person. Most people, but not him.
Image by John Opera, Blinds 1, 2014. Courtesy of the artist and Andrew Rafacz Gallery, Chicago
He came into his building smelling something—fruit, strawberries—no, it was cantaloupe, somebody in the building cutting cantaloupe, and as he climbed the first flight he smelled it the whole way up. It smelled fresh, delicious, juicy, melonous. And on the second flight he kept smelling it, and he looked at the mail thinking it odd he was holding it since he’d had no memory of getting it from the box, and on the third flight he still smelled the cantaloupe. He thought, “That’s weird that I’m smelling cantaloupe the whole way up, it’s not a scent that travels very far.” And on the fourth flight he was still smelling it and he thought, ah, it’s a scented candle of course, that was it, a cantaloupe-scented candle. A cantaloupe-scented candle? And then he fell backward and banged his head on tile.
He woke in a dream where he was still on the subway home from work, and the carriage of it swung him gently from side to side and the other riders swayed with it too. It was traveling, but making smaller noises, cart-like noises, small wheels against hard floors, for example. It was like that. And there were voices above him in the subway, which was odd, and with that, the recognition of this as a dream, from which he was waking. Then the subway began to dissolve, pieces of it falling out into blurry gray scribbles, the motion suddenly suspended. And then he opened his eyes to see white light, a ceiling the color and texture of a cantaloupe’s rind, and a clean-shaven white man leaning over him, frowning. Then, from the other side, a pleasantly plump-lipped Puerto Rican woman who smiled, but just a little bit. He was in a hospital.
“Swell.” The doctor was an older gentleman. Neon lassos waved in the space behind his head, undulating around the lights. Quickly they formed the face of a cat. Like the Cheshire Cat.
“I’m fairly certain that’s not real,” he said.
“Mr. Laightly,” the woman said. “Can you blink three times for us?”
Laightly blinked three times.
“Can you give us a smile?” she asked, leaning over him and showing her white teeth in what was surely a smile but which he could not recognize as such. He smelled cloves wafting from her breast area.
“Note bradykinesia of the right zygomaticus major,” said the doctor, to someone in an oblivion of white light.
“How do you feel?” asked the clove woman. He could see her badge hanging from her neck. It said her name was Filomela Docente. That didn’t sound Puerto Rican, he thought.
Laightly stated that his head hurt, that he didn’t understand what happened, that he felt awake but not okay.
The doctor looked at Maria. “You follow that?”
Maria shook her head, while steadily gazing at Laightly.
“Note marked dysarthria without cognitive impairment,” the doctor stated.
The information came to him bit by bit, as he lay in the bed, as he waited in the waiting area, as he waited at home with his phone next to him.
And they explained things to him. His neighbor in 3C, the one whose cannabis smelled exactly like ripe grapefruit, had come across him in the hall and called 911. Now there would need to be tests. Some would be done today, but he’d need to wait until they could get him in. And some would be done tomorrow. They wouldn’t know everything they needed for at least two days. But the information came to him bit by bit, as he lay in the bed, as he waited in the waiting area, as he waited at home with his phone next to him.
“It’s a brain tumor,” they all told him.
“It’s very large,” they said. And they read him exact measurements.
“It appears to be aggressive,” they told him.
“It has the uncanny resemblance of an octopus,” they said.
“One of these extrusions is extending across the substantia negra,” they said.
“You may find that your fingers and toes twitch in a progressively disturbing manner.”
“In some cases like this, we’ve seen a progression to what resembles the effects of nerve gas on humans. But then again, we know nothing, in the grand scope of things.”
“You will probably experience some cognitive dysfunction, although it’s hard for us to say what form that will take. Most likely, the slight problems we’ve already noted will become more pronounced, not less, as the days pass.”
“In this scan, you can see the way it’s sort of sliding across the splenium of the corpus callosum.”
“We believe the swelling related to your fall had the effect of exacerbating some of the normal symptoms of this tumor, which as you’ve seen are debilitating. In many ways, they resemble Parkinson’s.”
Laightly nodded. He’d already told them about his father. He was sitting in the doctor’s office the week after his fall. The doctor cleared his throat. “This is an aggressive, malignant mass, and the fact is you may have wound up with these symptoms anyway. It’s just hard to say for sure, since your first symptom appears to have been the syncope, and that caused the fall. You see, you wouldn’t have incurred the head injury without the syncope.”
“I’m sorry, without the what?”
“When you passed out. Well, in any case, the news is, don’t get up yet. I haven’t really come clean about this. This thing is probably growing very rapidly. I want you to know that. It’s hard to say what I’m going to say.”
“Didn’t you already tell me?”
“Tell you what?”
“Three weeks. I have three weeks to live.”
“No, I just told you, just now.”
“You told me yesterday.”
“No, I’m just telling you, just now. I just told you, seconds ago.”
“I didn’t hear you. Not seconds ago.”
“Okay, well, three weeks is not a hopeful estimate. I don’t want to raise false hopes here.”
“You said that already.”
“No,” the doctor said, irked now, “I’m saying it now.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You don’t understand what I’ve told you, or you don’t understand how much time you have?”
“I would advise against traveling alone. On the other hand, fuck it. Do what you want to do.”
“I understand how much time I have,” Laightly said. He stared at the corner of the laminate countertop near the sink, where three smooth plastic sides came together in a pyramidal shape, pointing diagonally into a part of the room that served no purpose except to hold breathable air.
“You are at risk of experiencing seizures at some point,” the doctor told him. “I would advise against traveling alone. On the other hand, fuck it. Do what you want to do.”
“I’ve assigned you a therapist,” the doctor said. “Her name is Elana Samewise, and she’s at the New Life clinic over in Long Island City.”
He was to visit the doctor weekly, or more if new problems arose, and the therapist twice weekly. He decided to count not by days or weeks but by interactions with people. He had a certain limited number of interactions, conversations, meetings, visits, etc., left with significant people in his life, and he decided right away how many of those, and with whom. He would count down that way. It was better than counting days. And counting weeks would be dismal, because there were only three. But ticking off six visits with the therapist, three with the hospital, and whatever others he chose to plan, seemed fun. It was as if time didn’t really matter after all, only people did. And if he looked up and all the interactions were crossed off and twenty-one days had expired, and he was still around, well, it was probably a miracle, and so was every interaction he might have with anyone after that point.
The therapist was in a cozy office in a high rise development on Queens Boulevard. She was on the tenth floor. Elana had big hazel eyes that appeared sad and shy in their first meeting, then compassionate and inviting in the next one. Her hair was dyed blond and naturally wavy. She had fair skin but appeared to tan well, like she’d had a healthy summer tan every summer most of her life. In just one meeting he became totally dependent on her and needed to see her again with a bodily yearning. Thinking about her full breasts, showing just enough shape and heft beneath her loose blouse, he considered that she was too good to be true, that he had to go back just because. He wanted to breach protocol, because there was nothing to lose.
“Well, how would you really feel about that? About raping someone who’s tasked with helping you cope with the notion of death?”
“What if I said I wanted to fuck you?”
“That’s a feeling you have?”
“It’s not a feeling. It’s a desire. I would even say I could take you against your will if I wanted, and I’d have not much to lose.”
“Well, how would you really feel about that? About raping someone who’s tasked with helping you cope with the notion of death?”
“Well, sure. That sounds like what you’re talking about.”
“So you wouldn’t be into the idea at all?”
“Against my will. Your words, not mine.”
“Right, well, that’s what I said thinking that maybe you would actually be willing and that any forceful action would just be hypothetical.”
“It’s not hypothetical.”
“So you’re saying it would be rape. You would report it as rape.”
“I’m not talking about how I would feel about it. I’m talking about how you would feel about it.”
“But why not do it?”
“If you think you could do it without guilt or remorse, sure, you’d have nothing to lose. But we’re trying to get you in a peaceful place, where your mind can be at ease. How would it really make you feel? I mean, how would it feel?”
“To fuck you? How would that feel?”
“How would it make you feel?”
“Fucking fantastic, probably. You’ve got an amazing body, you’re young, you seem to me like you might live forever. You look limber, and your lips are succulent and I want to suck on them, gently.”
“But if I’m unwilling, you would feel differently than if I’m willing.”
He had to think about that. Okay, he admitted. It was true.
“It’s perfectly normal to have thoughts like that when you’re facing this. It’s actually a sign that your acceptance of it has progressed already beyond denial, and that you haven’t chosen to delude yourself. Many people contemplate breaking laws or committing self-indulgent crimes in what they know to be their final days. It’s a way of working through anger. And anger, in this case, is healthy.”
“I’m not an unattractive guy. I know I have this slurry speech now and my face sags, but I can still get a rod on. Especially for you.”
“Well, look, what I think would be healthy would be for the two of us to just take the rest of this session to be completely nude with each other, embracing, and possibly enjoying coital, bareback bliss. I’m talking about the physical comfort of a mother combined with the lust of a second cousin. I want to feel your bare breasts against me in a completely inappropriate way. I want a transcendent, unprofessional creature comfort. And I want to please you. I’ve got no one else. You just seem like you care. Could we just try it? Please? Could we just pull the blinds and use this couch here? No one would have to know. I’m not an unattractive guy. I know I have this slurry speech now and my face sags, but I can still get a rod on. Especially for you. I mean, come on, what are the chances that my grief counselor turns out to be, like, the hottest, smartest, most compassionate young lady I’ve ever encountered in my twelve years in New York? What are the chances? I think this is meant to happen.”
“You may experience sexual impulses,” the doctor told him.
He arranged a trip.
He had to get things in order at work.
He needed to see his father in Laguna Beach. He booked another flight, to Los Angeles, on the weekend. He bought a regular ticket, at the last-minute price of $1600, then upgraded to first class for another $1700. He decided he would drink the wine every time it was offered, and maybe even ask for the bottle.
He told his father the news at the house, with the nurse there. It made the tremors more pronounced. From the mantle, his mother looked on. “Y-y-you,” his father said. His arms quaked. “You what.”
I’m leaving,” he said again. “I’m going on a trip. And I’m sick, very sick.”
The leave-taking of the trip and the leave-taking of life had been too much, semantically and emotionally, for the old man. The nurse wrote it all down on a pad of paper shaped like a beer mug and showed him the words that spelled it out. His father attempted to take the pad, shaking, and she held it out of his reach, then moved it close to his face. He attempted to take it again, and she moved it in an evasive circle. His eyes followed it and squinted.
“A trip,” his father said.
“He’s telling you he’s very sick,” said the nurse. “He doesn’t have long.”
“A long trip,” his father said.
“It’s happening to me faster than it’s happening to you,” he said. “Who would have guessed?” His father nodded, and then he kept nodding. But in the nodding there were deeper nods, the ones that signaled something other than utter chaos and destruction.
It wasn’t fair. He was supposed to get married to someone, his therapist maybe. He was supposed to make children with her and watch them grow up, go to school, succeed, make their own families. And it wasn’t even the misfortune of it that made him feel the unfairness. Beyond the haze of emotions, it was the simple fact that he’d run out of time. He could only do, watch, involve himself in things that took short amounts of time. Things that did not develop and ripen over years and decades. The smell of something bad, rotten, was upon him, and it would be discarded soon. Not pickled, not fermented, not preserved or aged, not savored in the future with memories of its inception. Just pitched. He saw how silly short-term pleasures were. He understood, in those final weeks, that it’s not the doing of things that matters, it’s the seasoning of them, the way they change your relationship to the ever-moving present. It’s not just the memories of them or the feelings of nostalgia left over when the memories fade, but the weight of things over time. The way persistence multiplies layers of who you are, right in any given moment. The way each new moment is suddenly richer than the last. The way any life can be subdivided, foolishly for sure, but nevertheless divided, into decades, years, days, hours, seconds, and moments which exist only now, right here and now, which give the word “momentum” new meaning, like the momentum of a snowball. If you are the snowball, you gather mass and each moment of your movement takes on more consequence, more force, more meaning and might. It will melt away, one day, but meanwhile most of the hills are long. Most people get to carry their lives along in typical arcs. Most people experience the fullness of what it means to be a person. Most people, but not him.
They were watching him die, although they had no idea it was happening.
When he died, it was on the metro in Moscow, and two men across from him were laughing incessantly. He heard the word Pravda. Their faces were red with it. They laughed and no one around them even looked. There was a bottle of something. They slouched, and they were looking at him. They were watching him die, although they had no idea it was happening. They were two young Russian men, in the high collared sweaters that such men wore, with red round faces and corn-husk hair cropped seriously short. You might call them crew cuts. It’s hard to say what baggage a particular style carries, when in a foreign country.
There is history there, behind every fashion. Behind every behavior. You could trivialize it by saying: Levi’s, Coca-Cola, Gap, Benetton, McBucek, or you could go the opposite way and say: genocide, totalitarian Kontrol, greed-corruption, institutional suicide. Who knows what any of them are thinking, he thought. These two were laughing, hysterically, to the point of losing their breath, and clearly looking at him while doing it, which act seemed to renew the laughter. Sputtering with it, spewing ethyl alcohol fumes in the air like leaky reactors. And no one paid them any mind. He’d seen someone stand up once on a commuter rail from Odintsovo and punch a man in the face for berating a conductor. A beating ensued, with a large woman joining in on the action, until the man lay bloody in the aisle. And the two assailants sat back down and began casually eating apple slices on their way to Dubna.
Who knew what was going through their heads, but they certainly had no idea he was dying. Although it was funny that he did.
And perhaps we were all laughing at the same thing. Except he knew what was happening, and they didn’t. And the way he knew was because they were laughing. That was how he knew. Perhaps they would have laughed anyway, even if they knew what he knew, that they were laughing in the face of death. But if they hadn’t laughed, he would not have known what was happening.
He found it funny, ultimately, that they were sealing his fate that way, that they were laughing him down into the grave, and making him aware of it, without being aware of it themselves.
Aaron Steven Miller is a graduate of the Writing Workshops at the University of California, Irvine, where he was an Arlene Cheng Fellow and a recipient of the Glen Schaeffer Award. His recent work can be found in Joyland, Byliner, and Medium. He lives in New York. Story first published in Guernica. Copyright Aaron Miller, 2014.