You can’t see the cigarette in your hand but you can smell it burning you. You suppose it’s finished, but even as the skin of your middle and index fingers is singed by the last few centimeters of burning tobacco, you don’t let go. Letting go isn’t as easy as everyone says. You can’t really see straight because you’ve been drinking a lot of vodka. Too much vodka for a woman of eighty-seven. But what do you care? You’re days away from death, and you know it. As you turn your head it feels like the whole world and every part of you is turning with it. Your bottle is almost empty and it makes you sad. So sad you might cry if it weren’t for the dancing figures on the TV screen in front of you. They’re foolish and they make you smile stupidly to yourself. The cigarette between your damaged fingertips falls to the floor and begins to slowly burn a hole into the maroon colored carpet. You sigh and light another, coughing as the bitter smoke rushes through your lungs. You’ve never been much of a smoker, but it’s a special occasion. You slowly push yourself up off the couch with one hand, the other still closed around the clear neck of your vodka bottle. It sloshes around as you stand shakily on two feet. You suppose you could go to bed now. It’s 9:15, a cold Thursday night. Your phone hasn’t rung in days and you feel somewhat lonely. All of the people your age that you know live with caretakers now, some even reside in nursing homes. As lucky as you usually feel to be able to take care of yourself, nights like these make you wish you had someone to talk to. Even if it was just someone being paid to change you or make sure you ate the right foods. Being alone all the time makes you feel like it doesn’t matter whether you live or die. That’s why you’ve already smoked two packs of cigarettes today and worked your way through half a bottle of Vodka in an hour. However, as you stumble your way through stacks of old papers and chests full of things that you’ve forgotten you owned, you think that maybe you deserve better than this. Perhaps it isn’t fair to let yourself simply corrode into nothing. You look down at yourself. The clothes on your body have hung in the same places for too long. They are stained, damp, and dirty in places. But you can’t bring yourself to take them off. You want to die in these clothes. The hair on your head has become so scarce that when you stand under the light and look in the mirror, you can see your scalp right through it.
It’s clear to you all of a sudden, that to die like this is to disregard having been able to live in the first place. You feel like a switch within you has been turned on. Now you’re just a count down. And to what? You have no idea. That’s what you’ve been trying to figure out. Even as a child you haven’t ever been able to come to terms with death. As you grew into an adult you had figured a deeper understanding would come with time, but it never did. Your friends told you that after their parents died, they saw death in a new light. They had a fresh understanding and they were no longer afraid. Both of your parents are long dead by now, but you’re still afraid. You’re terrified. So scared that you can barely move to pick up the phone and call your daughter, even though you know you have to.
“Kathleen,” you say, after she’s picked up and greeted you, “it’s so nice to hear your voice.”
“You too, Ma. How have you been? You know I keep meaning to stop by…”
“I know you’re a busy girl. I’m alright. Well, actually, no I suppose I’m not alright. I…I’m going to die soon, Kathy,” As you hear the last sentence come out of your throat it sounds as if someone else had said it. Someone more quiet and serious.
“Don’t be ridiculous. You’re perfectly healthy, it’ll be a long time before you go,”
“No, sweetheart, “ you say, “it’ll be soon. I can feel it. I’m running out of juice,” you try to laugh but it comes out dry and sad.
“Don’t say that, Ma. I don’t want to think about that,”
“Neither do I, but I have to now. I’ve been trying not to but I have to. I was wondering if you could do something for me, Kathleen. A favor. A big one,”
“Of course, Ma, anything,”
You can tell from her voice that she understands you now. And that’s how you got here, to this glass box. Outside lie a million people living their lives as you struggle to let go of yours. It’s like a gag in the back of your throat that you can’t get out. Something inside you wants to leave, and the longer it has to wait the more impatient it becomes. You don’t know why you have asked Kathleen to let you use her apartment. It’s an odd request, to ask if you can live your last days in someone’s home. You know it won’t be easy for her to come back here after it has all happened. But you feel safer here. Kathleen is married to a wealthy man who has been able to buy her this fancy glass house, up high above the streets of New York. From here you can look down and pretend you are every car driving down the street and every man or woman walking to wherever it is they are walking. You could be someone who isn’t you. Someone with more time.
You have all these hours, the last ones you’ll ever be blessed with, and pretty soon you’ll be able to count them on your fingers and toes. You aren’t quite sure what to do with this final collection of hours. Part of you wants to sit here and smoke until you decay into nothing. Another wants to run through one of the tall clear windows, out into the open air and down into nowhere and everywhere. You want to cry and scream and laugh like a child. You want spicy food. You want to feel someone’s skin against your own. You want someone to fuck you. You want to feel everything you’ve ever felt in one moment, and hold that moment in your hand until you’re ready to discard it, because you aren’t yet. Even as you sit there, thinking all the thoughts you’ve tried before but never applied to your own life, you feel rushed. You think you should breathe more. More breaths in a minute is living twice as fast. If you can will your blood to run faster, you can race death, outrun it until you can no longer feel it’s fiery pant on your neck. Your mind works itself into a frenzy as you sit there, still and stiff.
That night you go to bed exhausted, your energy completely spent on thoughts that left you right where you started. Your limbs ache and you can feel your skin melting off of you, your bones thinning into strands of hair, your blood draining from your body and soaking into the mattress beneath you. As tired as you are, you don’t close your eyes once the entire night.
The next morning you feel different. Startled, you sit up in bed. It’s quiet. You know something has changed, but you don’t quite know what it is. Cautiously, you bring your withered legs over the side of the bed, letting your feet touch the soft, carpeted floor. You’re unsure of what to do next. It’s early, not later than eight, and sunlight floods the bedroom with harsh light. You think of the day that lies ahead of you and reach for a cigarette from the pack you left on the side table before you got into bed. As you take a drag, your body still half-covered with the sheets you wrestled all night, you consider how many times your daughter and her husband have probably made love in this bed. You think of your husband, Paul, and how he used to touch you. You miss his strong hands. You feel something warm and wet bloom between your legs, and you close your eyes to enjoy it for a moment. You finish your cigarette, liking the way it hisses when you stump it out in the ashtray, and as you force yourself to stand, you feel you have half the strength you did yesterday. As if leeches were set on your skin as you slept, it feels like your insides have been sucked out. You’re almost hollow now, about to be nothing but the empty shell of someone from a different time. Someone who’s been forgotten. You feel like the last bar of battery on a cell phone screen. Soon you’ll start fading and then, in a moment, you’ll shut off. Suddenly all the unanswered questions and paralyzing thoughts of the day before don’t seem so important.
You spend your day making distinctions. You take a shower for the first time in too long, and the hot water dripping down the length of your body thrills you. The scent of soap is sweet and sharp in your nostrils and your fingers are wrinkled like little walnuts from the heat and the moisture. You’re reborn in that shower and you emerge as someone different. Someone who isn’t suffocated by fear. Someone who has found themselves when they weren’t looking.
And now you have a lot to get done with a significantly smaller collection of hours than when you started. The first thing you do is write a letter, because you know now that to leave nothing behind, to cower in the face of death, to go quietly from someone to no one, is to surrender. Yesterday all you could think to do was give up, but now the thought of it makes you sick. You can’t sit still.
As soon as you’re done writing it you leave the apartment to mail the letter. The elevator takes a long time and makes you light-headed as it slows down and stops in the lobby.
“Good day, ma’am,” says the doorman, leading you out of the building. You smile a thank you but say nothing as you continue down the street.
As you hold the letter in your hands, you feel strangely at peace. You don’t know what it is to die. You don’t believe that anyone truly does, although a lot of people have tried to get you to believe what they claim to know happens after you close your eyes for the last time. You think about this as you walk. You will be dead by the time the letter arrives to Kathleen, of that you’re quite sure. You’ve told Kathleen to come by to say goodbye to you next week, even though you know you won’t make it until then. You know Kathleen’s husband has probably talked her out of believing that you’re about to die because he thinks people can’t possibly know such things. You’re grateful for this because you wouldn’t know how to say goodbye.
This is the last letter you will ever mail. You’ve been having a lot of lasts these days. The strange thing about having lasts is that it forces you to think about your firsts. The first time you paid your own bills. You’d sent it in the last payment you would live to be billed for days ago. You think to yourself there are a lot of lasts that you don’t mind having. There are a lot of things you’ve done your whole life that you’re happy to never do again. And then you think of the first time you’d ever made love. You didn’t know it was the last time when it was. You’d thought about it after Paul died. It wasn’t as you’d been having sex often. After all, you and Paul were both old by then. But you remember a couple days after his funeral you’d thought about it. No one would ever want to touch you like that again. The letter is full of things you wish you’d known before you’d gotten old. Always remember to feel what it’s like when you run. Feel how you move, because you won’t always be so free. Don’t worry about money, because it really is just an object in the end. Don’t worry about things, worry about people. Worry about yourself every once in a while. Give as much love as much as you can, but only to those to deserve it.
You put the letter in the slot of the big metal box and sigh. The last letter. The last thing your only child will have to remember you by. You told her you would watch over her but you don’t know if it’s true.
When you arrive back at the apartment you make a batch of tea. Walking so much has made you tired. With some difficulty you pull a chair across the room and sit near one of the windows. The first time you’d seen the apartment you’d thought it would be horrible to live in a place like this. To you it felt like the world was looking in, spying on you for every hour of every day, but now you see the peace in it. As ten thousand things happen on the other side of the glass, in here it’s static. You feel like you’re dwelling at the bottom of a swimming pool, observing the distorted world outside through a watery wall. The same inflated silence, the same detachment from everything beyond this sanctuary. But instead of floating in here, you’re sinking fast, and everything above you, everything you’ve ever loved or hated or known something or nothing about is getting farther and farther away from where you can touch it.
You’ve burned yourself on your cigarette again. It’s a waste of money letting cigarettes consume in your fingers like this, but what does money mean to you now anyways? Your coffee is cold now and you don’t really want to drink it. An airplane passes outside, barely distinguishable against the bright white canopy of clouds that has drifted over the city today, and you find yourself wondering where it’s going. You wish so badly to be on that plane that tears begin to fall from your cheeks.
As evening comes you realize how quickly this day has passed. You sit on your bed and turn off all the lights, looking out into the dark city. The skyline is studded with specks of light that glitter when you aren’t looking right at them. You’ll miss seeing the skyline, you think to yourself. Or maybe you’ll miss seeing anything at all. Or maybe you won’t miss, because you can’t. Either way you know this is the last time you’ll see the city at night, the last time you’ll tuck yourself into bed, the last time you’ll fall asleep knowing that you’ll wake up again in a matter of hours. You know that tomorrow, it’s time for you to die.
You awake and the moment your eyes open you realize how late it is. The sun has already shifted half way across the sky. Why didn’t the light wake you? You can’t remember the last time you got so much sleep. It’s difficult for you to muster the strength to move your arm and pull the covers off your body, but you do. Your head spins and you can’t really see straight, so you clench the side of the bed, but you get that feeling like you’re laughing so hard that you can’t grab onto anything and you fall, face forward onto the rug. It feels coarse against your face and it hurts and your whole body is still twitching from the pain of the fall and you don’t really want to get up. You’ve hit your head so hard that you can’t really think straight, but it occurs to you that you could lie here for ten minutes or an hour or all day until your life decides to leave you. You could wait it out. Maybe if you could fall back asleep, you wouldn’t have to feel it. That feels like cheating. And yet you lie there, asking yourself if you’re really going to renounce your life so casually and it takes you a long while to come up with an answer, but eventually you do.
No, you think to yourself, because I’d like a cigarette first.
And so you push yourself up, even though it feels like the bones in your wrist are going to split down the middle. You feel the joints in your knees crush together as you heave yourself up to stand. It feels like your bones are disintegrating. You reach a shaking hand towards your pack of cigarettes and with some effort you manage to get one out of the pack, into your mouth, and over the flame of an old silver lighter that Kathleen gave Paul one Christmas. You’d found it in the drawer besides the bed.
The smoke sends you into a coughing fit and when you recover your throat feels raw. You drag yourself to the living room and find that you left the chair beside the window yesterday. You toast two pieces of bread and cover them with a thin layer of butter. The food tastes dry and no amount of coffee can moisten it.
You set yourself down on the chair and look out over the city. The buildings appear dull in the brilliant sunlight and you find your eyes are tired from the intensity of it. You finish eating and set your plate down at your feet. Leaning back in the chair and feel how the bones in your neck are so weak you could snap them between your hands. And in that moment you decide that it’s time. You’ve run your course and you’ve gotten somewhere you never thought you’d be. You’re someone different than you were three days ago. Someone complete, as if you’ve finally picked up all your pieces. For the first time in your life you are whole. You don’t know how long you’ve been sitting there when it happens, but the sun has gone down and it’s dark. It doesn’t come how you think it will, violently and raging. Instead, death sneaks up on you. It runs it’s fingers through your hair and purrs into your ear, and for just a moment nothing in your entire life is missing. All the hurting that plagued you a moment ago dissipates into the air like smoke, and before you realize what has happened, everything is gone.
Age 17, Grade 11
Bard High School Early College