This is the second part of a short fictional story about a man realizing for the first time that he has a deep desire to avoid aging and death. We published the first part of the story last Friday, and you can read it here.
I feel ashamed admitting to this, but I proceeded with wariness all the way to my door. That late at night, I didn’t meet anyone in the hallways or in the elevator. At first, I didn’t even want to take the elevator, as I was afraid that the girl might suddenly appear before me when the doors opened as I got in or out; however, for some reason, the idea of taking the stairs felt even worse, nearly terrifying. After hesitating some, I chose to take the elevator. Once I reached my door, I inserted the key in the lock, and after a moment of hesitation, I began turning it. At each turn, which echoed sinisterly in the hallway, I stopped as if to check that the sound didn’t attract the attention of God knows what supernatural creatures lurking in the dark. Absolutely nothing looked different than usual, yet I felt like a character in a horror movie.
I opened a crack between the door and the frame, stuck a hand in, and frantically searched for the light switch on the wall. “Finally home,” I said in an annoyed and embarrassingly loud and shaky voice to no one in particular, while still searching for the switch with no success. Once I found it, I flicked it, and as soon as the light went on, I pulled the door wide open, ran in, and finally slammed the door shut behind me.
I stopped on the doorstep for a moment and looked around, making sure no one was there. I pushed open the sliding door of the coat rack all of a sudden, to catch by surprise whoever might have been hiding in it; relieved that nobody was there, I hung my coat. I took off my shoes and went to the restroom, while still exploring my surroundings guardedly, trying to convince myself I was now calm and no longer afraid.
I washed my face, trying not to look at the mirror for fear that it might show one reflection too many.
Oddly, I wasn’t hungry at all, but I did feel like having a hot drink. I fixed myself a hot chocolate. I left the boiling hot mug on the table and sat down.
That girl was not death. She couldn’t be. Death is not a creature or an entity; it has no legs or arms, and it does not speak. It’s just an abstraction, a metaphysical concept, the name we give to the status of a living being that is no longer such. She was just a poor devil who had lost many of her marbles, or maybe she was shocked by the death of a loved one, or both. Granted, many sinister and unsettling coincidences had happened, and at the end of the day, I am quite impressionable, but it had all been just a trick of fate, nothing more. I wouldn’t be the first person to lose track of time, not notice a storm coming, or just plain not pay attention to what was going on around me. The girl wore black, but maybe she wasn’t there for a funeral. Maybe the funeral was over without me noticing it, or maybe it was true that it never happened—after all, a few suits and ties headed towards a church don’t necessarily mean that anybody died. I wasn’t even sure that I had actually seen any funeral announcements or flower wreaths.
It was an interesting story to tell at my next Halloween party, nothing more.
It was really disturbing how she seemed to be able to read my mind. She had replied to my questions or objections before I could even finish saying them in more than one occasion—sometimes, before I could even finish thinking them up. I’d rather believe she was absurdly intelligent, or even a telepath, than accept that she might actually be death.
Even assuming she actually was death, why would she come to me and speak ill of herself? To persuade me that death is an evil and we should stop sugar coating it? To what end? What would she expect me to do? To “kill” her where she was standing and set the world free from death?
Ridiculous, I thought to myself, shaking my head.
At any rate, that’s not what death—I mean, the girl wanted from me. In her words, she wanted me to understand something that, deep inside, I already knew. But I didn’t share her views at all; I mean, death is part of the natural order of things, I told myself, and even though hardly anyone is happy to die, that’s just the way it is. Death is necessary. Sure, I must admit that the whole of human progress hinges on the search for ways to improve quality of life and avoid death for as long as possible, and there is no reason we shouldn’t prevent deaths that actually are preventable or that happen too soon; that’s why doctors, hospitals, and safety measures exist in the first place, but…
Too soon, I repeated mentally. She had stressed that point a lot. I stood up, leaving my chocolate to cool down on the table, and I took a few steps towards the window, where I stopped to look at the downpour I had barely managed to avoid.
When is it “too early” to die? In your thirties? Forties? Sixties? I had never thought about it before, but now I couldn’t help but wonder about something that the girl had asked me. Suppose for the sake of argument that we didn’t grow old; imagine that we just grew up and that our health didn’t inevitably begin deteriorating sooner or later. Would we still think it isn’t “too early” to die at age 80? As a matter of fact, one might think that the reason why we normally think it is acceptable to die after your seventies is that it just happens and we can’t do anything to prevent it. Maybe it is not because of wisdom that we accept death at later ages without feeling outraged and without putting up a fight, like we do in the case of “premature” deaths; maybe we are just putting a good face on a really bad game.
No; no. Normally, the average lifespan is more than enough to live your life as a normal human being; it’s more than enough for you to grow up, go to school, get a job, and start a family, for example. Though it is also true, I was forced to admit, that human life is structured as a function of its duration and our health at every age. If we were always perfectly healthy, we would have no need to plan for old age, because in a way, it would never come. Maybe retirement would turn into just a holiday of a few years, and after your batteries are charged again you would be able to start over, perhaps in a different environment or even a new job, maybe.
What about the traditional milestones dictating the rhythm of our lives? Are they all one can aspire to? Is your life complete once you have had a career and grandkids? Is that time to die? What about people who never managed, for one reason or another, to do all they wanted to do before death? If death really must come, why must we first endure years of constant decline and deterioration—not only our own, but also that of our loved ones?
These issues had always seemed to be too far into the future to concern myself with them, but then I realized that, one day, they would be my problem too. It’s not like I didn’t know it; I did. Yet, somehow, the notion hadn’t really sunk in. I had always felt as if there was infinite time between me and old age. Being old and diseased, slowly heading to the grave, had always seemed to be somewhat of an unlikely and fanciful occurrence; laughable, even, and I laughed at it more than once. I had always thought that I laughed at death because I wasn’t afraid of it in the slightest, but now I was growing more and more suspicious that, in truth, I might have been whistling past the graveyard all along.
I suddenly moved away from the window and grabbed the mug on the table, hoping that a few sips of chocolate might help me calm down and ease the pain coming from the lump that had formed in my throat. Swallowing was hard and hurt, as if a tangle of old, withered knobby roots ran through my throat. My breath was heavy and labored, my hands were shaking, and my wish not to be left alone was so strong that even the company of the very girl who had unleashed this nightmare would have been preferable to the solitude of my flat.
I shook my head repeatedly. I wanted nothing to do with any of this. I didn’t give a damn whether the girl was right or not, nor did I care whether I agreed with her or not. All that I wanted to do was to put the lid back on Pandora’s box and bury it deep under the ocean so that it could never be found again. I wanted my old life back, the one I had and was perfectly content with up until that last, cursed morning: my job, my friends, the usual rhythms and milestones that everyone goes through. The ones that everyone goes through because everyone does and no one has much of a choice.
She’d planted the seeds of those thoughts in my mind, and they kept blossoming, nullifying my efforts to extirpate them and convince myself that I was as happy with the finitude of human life as I always had been; anxiety had me in a tight grip as I realized that I was no longer able to believe that old lie. Pragmatically, I told myself that, whether I liked it or not, old age comes for everyone and is inevitable; torturing myself like this would have no point. Debating whether or not it was right or desirable for every life to be abruptly terminated after years of deterioration would accomplish nothing but ruin the time I had left before deterioration would begin for me. I simply had to get over this.
Maybe, the girl would have said that this too was sugaring the pill.
I was exhausted, anxiety eating me alive and thoughts tangled up. Like a huge spiderweb, the more I tried to break free, the more I was enmeshed. I took a sleeping pill and resolved to put an end to that terrible day. The next day, I figured, I would wake up serene, as if nothing had ever happened.
Will he be able to go back to his old life and beliefs, or is it too late for that? Find out next Friday in the third and final part of this story.