On Saturday night we were in Central Park, dancing in the rain. Dancing in the rain beneath a big tree, beneath a huge old oak. A huge old oak that was barely sheltering us from the deluge despite its broad canopy.
Picture us. We were soaked to the skin, yet dancing. See how alive we were? Dancing, although soaked to the skin. I was dancing with the intent of sweeping my partner off her feet. I was dancing with joy and energy, with passion and with the simple pleasure of it. I was truly, wonderfully, happily alive, for how could one be more alive than when dancing in the rain for the sheer thrill of it?
Suddenly everything changed. In an instant nothing was the same. Not unexpected, I admit. After all, living is quite different from not living. At least that’s how most people would perceive it. But nothing can truly prepare you for the actuality of not living, the vast difference between being alive and being not alive. Nothing in your comprehension, or your nightmares, can prepare you for the reality of your new situation. Nothing can prepare you for the actuality of the change, the disparity in the two states, the reality of your new existence. Or should that be your new non-existence? A matter of perspective, I guess.
This can’t be happening. I can’t end like this. I’ve got too many things to do; too many things unsaid. Too many things undone. I’ve got too much life left to live. Damn it, I’m not ready for the end.
Look around you. Go ahead, take some time. I’m not going anywhere. Appreciate what you see. Whatever it is, appreciate it. Because you can see it. Or hear it. Or smell, touch, taste it. I look around and all I see is nothingness. Nothingness, but with a texture. If that makes any sense, which it probably doesn’t. None of this makes sense to me, so why should it make sense to you?
It’s not that I don’t see, or can’t see. It’s more like there is nothing to see. Whatever direction I look, if the concept of direction, or even the concept of look, still means anything, it’s all the same. Muted, flat, not any specific color. Dull. Relatively featureless, with no specific colors or sounds.
The atmosphere, for lack of a better way of putting it, is like a thick fog. I’ll call it grey, to provide a reference. So it’s a grey fog, if you will, with a nominal density and movement. And I can detect a faint odor. A hint of something familiar, but not quite identifiable.
I don’t feel cold, I don’t feel heat. No red devils with pitchforks assail me, contrary to my living-self expectations of my eventual fate.
I just realized something. If I am seeing, sensing, however you want to put it, I’m not in a void, a black hole of nonexistence. At least not as far as I can see. But then I’m not sure the idea of actually seeing means anything right now. Whatever it is I am perceiving is simply there. Look, I know this sounds befuddled, confusing, crazy, whatever. But the idea of not living seems crazy to me.
Let me tell you how I arrived at this peculiar state. This is as much for me to figure out what’s happened as to inform you.
As I said, I was recently happily dancing with Susan. Maybe I didn’t say it was with Susan, but it was.
Susan is my newest girlfriend. Or was. Susan still is, I guess. It’s me who now isn’t.
This is a confusing state of affairs. I’m going to have to skip all the conditionals and exceptions and digressions if I hope to tell this. So for now I’ll just tell things as if I were sitting across from you, living and breathing and farting and everything else humans do. Where it matters, I’ll explain more about my current state.
On to Susan and I. Our story probably starts with Jackie. Jackie is my friend from way back. All the way back to second grade, in fact. For people in their fourth decade, that’s a lot of shared time. Jackie was pretty much the same person in second grade that she is now, except smaller. Bossy and brash. Plans people’s lives, doesn’t take no for an answer, heartbreaker. Beautiful. And stubborn. She is consistently maddeningly stubborn. Jackie was also Susan’s best friend in college. There’s the connecting link in the triad.
Once upon a time Jackie set us up for a dinner date. An evening with her and Sam, me and Susan. The less said about that evening, the better. Trust me on this. Then she arranged a party at which Susan and I were the only unattached guests, unbeknownst to either of us, and thus pretty much forced together. It’s a wonder we didn’t each, in turn, turn on her.
Now normally, if things don’t work on the first date, and certainly if the second is less than successful, it ends right there.
I’m not sure why we tried again, but eventually we did. I’m sure Jackie was somewhere in the middle of it. She probably set up a conference call with herself, Susan, and I, then bowed out once the call was established. Ridiculous as that sounds, that’s a patented Jackie move. However we ended up talking that evening, we talked so long the battery in Susan’s phone gave out. For the sake of her poor phone we agreed to an open-ended date. A final fateful date. I never thought I’d be spending the rest of my life with Susan, but that’s the way it turned out.
We decided to minimize expectations by planning only to meet for coffee on Saturday, and letting things unfold from there.
Saturday unfolded as a vibrant day. The sky was a rich deep blue across which piles of clouds scooted, driven by a westerly breeze. Late summer hung in the air, tainting the breeze with an admixture of the burned aroma of roasting nuts from a nearby sidewalk cart, exhaust from the traffic crawling along the avenue, hints of undefinable odors wafting across the river, all layered with the nuance of ocean and harbor. In other words, New York at its ripest.
I was sitting at a table on the sidewalk, waiting for Susan. Not wanting to be late, I was there rather early. I had just enough time to start drafting a mental list of excuses to leave after downing the agreed-upon coffee when Susan suddenly appeared in front of me, a vision in a light silk top and a swirling black skirt. Her creamy top accentuated her golden hair, to good effect. Susan looked great, and I was entranced. I quickly decided I was going to enjoy this morning, at least visually.
Once I stopped gawking and closed my drooping jaw, we settled in for our coffee. I now realize a consequence of her clingy blouse. A consequence beyond the stir I felt in my loins as I admired my brunch companion. Could something as innocuous as a silk blouse, which offered so little warmth or protection when it got soaked by rain, be the domino that brought me to this point? Of course, every event is part of a chain that links us to the present moment. But some links are more consequential, just as some moments are.
Anyway, back to our brunch. Bagels, toasted and smeared. Poppy for me, cinnamon raisin for Susan. I know it was risky, having a poppy seed bagel. Darn seeds get stuck in your teeth, and you go around all day with little black specks that no one screws up the courage to tell you about. I planned for that, and did a quick check and cleanup after polishing off my bagel. Bagels and coffee, sitting at a tiny sidewalk table under a green canvas awning, itself overspread by a green leafy canopy. We somehow had a lot to say. After many words and almost equally many minutes, a coffee became two lattes; a bagel became a bagel and a shared morning bun. We occupied that tiny table longer than good citizens should.
Finally, we yielded our prime seats to the waiting throngs and strolled the few blocks east to the park. We kept up a steady banter as we crossed to the park. I guess we found plenty to share; I barely noticed how far we had walked.
After walking for some time Susan suddenly said, apropos of nothing in particular at that instant, but more so of the general situation, “This is ridiculous. We’re acting as if we are complete strangers. Worse. We’re acting as if we are on probation, being monitored for any more-than-superficial actions.”
In concert with that outburst she slipped her hand through my arm, which had been kept in check through the stratagem of firmly planting my hands in my pockets. I smiled and withdrew my hands from their restraints. After that we both relaxed and fell into an easy interchange, discoursing about everything and nothing, from trite to serious.
Idyllic? So it seemed. After a period of aimless meandering, rubbery gray-water hot dogs and Italian ices revived our energy levels. We sat and talked, we walked and talked, we walked and didn’t talk. Over the course of several hours we covered a lot of ground, much of it with her arm on my arm. I could sense she was trying to subtly steer me with her grip; I had no particular direction in mind, so I let her.
But lest my description sound too much like a feel-good movie, or a fairy tale, an instance of discord did creep in to remind us of the humanity involved. I speak of a scarcity of usable public facilities, and our differing sensibilities as to what usable meant. Now I get that women, of necessity, must interact with the plumbing in a way that may be optional for men. Still, there are times when squeamish must yield to practicality.
And when the choice becomes either use a less desirable facility or find a bush, a choice has to be made. Susan did not fully appreciate my pointing this out.
However, we managed to overcome this minor setback to our relatively harmonious day without serious injury to our accord. The timely discovery of an acceptable toilet definitely helped.
We eventually parked on a bench a bit off the busy thoroughfare of The Mall.
"You know, this might actually work out."
"This what might actually work out?" I replied.
Susan looked at me as if I was newly arrived on the scene. “You and me, that’s what. I’m actually really enjoying the day. Not just the day, with the sun and the park and the breeze and the trees, but being with you.”
Grinning like a gargoyle, as usual, I nodded. “Sort of surprising, after our two earlier less than sterling attempts. Either I’m on my best behavior, or you are. Either way, there sure seem to be two different people here this time.”
She laughed, ending when a slight snort punctuated her chuckle. The outburst embarrassed her; her hand flew to her mouth for a moment. She looked sheepish, but I shrugged it off.
I guess I did the right thing, because she continued. “Perhaps Jackie was right all along. She has been telling me about this guy she knows well for a couple of years. And I’ve been ‘yeah yeah’ putting her off just as long. I don’t think I’ll tell her she might have been right, though. I’d never hear the end of it.”
“Oh, yes. You must, simply must, be with someone.” I tried my best Jackie imitation. “Otherwise you’re such a bore at dinner or parties. And oh, by the way, I know just the person for your eternal happiness.”
She laughed again. Her blue eyes widened and sparkled with delight. “You’ve heard that too? I thought that was reserved for me.”
Our revery was interrupted by a swirling gust of wind. Surprised by the sudden vehemence of the breeze, we looked up at a rapidly graying sky.
"Perhaps we should move along. Looks like something is brewing up there."
"I don’t really want to end the day here. Any suggestions?"
"The Met is not far. Shall we go see some art? We can decide more once we’re inside."
"That’s good with me. I just felt the first raindrop, so we better get moving."
Fat drops spattered on the ground as our feet beat a staccato rhythm, hustling up the many wide marble steps, racing along with a suddenly artistically oriented crowd seeking the sheltering cultural amenities of the grand museum.
Hang on. Bear with me. I’m suddenly filled with the images and emotions I will never again behold through living eyes. The glorious colors and forms artfully dispersed all through the grand spaces of the Met, all those hymns to humanity. Gone from me. Music, literature, art. Sunsets and sunrises. All gone.
It’s not the people I’ve lost that I see right now. They’re not the images filling my, well, my consciousness, or whatever you can call this peculiar state. I hope you don’t think poorly of me for that. It’s not that I’ve chosen that particular set of memories; they seem to have chosen this moment to be remembered. Does that make sense? We don’t necessarily choose memories. They often seem to surface of their own accord.
Like this one, which just burst in on me. I once had a cat. She came crawling to me one spring afternoon, when I was about nine. A tiny bedraggled scrawny mewling pathetic little thing. Powder grey with big green eyes; a melt your hard heart face connected by a mass of fur to a slightly oversized tail.
She stole my little heart, and she kept it all the way through college. Always watching at the window when I straggled in, always rushing to meet me by the door, always ready to curl by me and keep me company even when my latest crush crushed me. She was my undemanding ever-loving companion at times when it seemed no one else was. I helplessly watched her go, diminishing before my eyes as a tumor took over her soft little furball of a body. Watching that happen was hard. Maybe that’s why it’s filling my mind now. It’s hard to lose, hard to know you’ve lost, and know there is nothing you can do to change it.
I bawled like a baby when my soft little friend was gone. My tears flowed profusely. When I was so drained that my tears could no longer flow, they still managed to drip from the tip of my nose. When I was overwhelmed by anger and grief my tears provided the final catharsis, the release I needed.
That’s something of the release I’d like to feel right now. I’d like to be drained of anger, and of fear, by the simple expedient of a good cry. But I can’t. I’ve been released from my body, but I’m imprisoned in my release. My tears won’t flow; they can’t flow. I want to cry, but I have no more tears.
Is that what it means, to be no longer living? To feel, but without release, without relief?
Is feel even the right word for what I am experiencing? Questions. Questions and confusion. That’s my current state. I can follow each of these questions down its own rabbit hole, but I fear it will be as futile as attempting to understand Alice’s wonderland.
Okay, let’s go on, shall we? Sorry for the digression.
So where were we? Right. We were in the Metropolitan Museum. We made it inside just before the flashing crashing storm arrived with its full thunderous glory. We had just a few hours to wander the galleries before closing time.
"I love this place. There’s so much beauty gathered in one place. Too much for the time we have today, I’m afraid. Where should we go?"
"How about a treasure hunt? Since we were chased inside by a storm, let’s find beauty in storms. Let’s find pictures of storms."
"Nice idea. Let’s start in the European gallery. There’s a few achingly beautiful paintings with storms there."
And so we wandered upstairs and down the crowded corridor, seeking stormy weather. We found it in several paintings, but our agreed favorite was by Cot.
We stood in front of The Storm for a while, listening to distant-sounding muffled rolls of thunder. The strength of nature couldn’t be fully deterred by any puny edifice of man. Not even the massiveness of the building surrounding us eliminated the rumbling of the storm.
Susan stood in front of me, my hands resting on her shoulders. We shifted. I stood to the left of the frame, seeking a new angle. She sought the contrary angle, leaning in from right side. We sat on a bench, looking up at the fleeing lovers while leaning against each other.
"Is that us? Two young lovers fleeing an oncoming storm? Look at how obviously happy he is to be with her. He’s so enamored."
"If you’re fishing, yes, I’m happy to be here with you. And while I’m glad we fled a storm together, the comparison is a bit off. At the very least, we’re overdressed compared to them. Or shouldn’t I say that?"
"I don’t mind. We’ll see…" Her voice tapered off, but her smile didn’t.
But I won’t see. I won’t see or feel.
I can still picture her smile. I remember its warmth, its dazzling vitality. I wish I could still feel her body warmth, her heat. I want to feel her heat. I want to feel her swaying and moving under my touch, to feel her move as I felt her move when we were dancing in the rain. I want to feel, but I no longer can.
We eventually left Cot’s painting and meandered through the galleries, searching for more depictions of storms. None quite fit our mood as well. We started speculating where the two young lovers had been before fleeing, and where they were fleeing to. We couldn’t quite bring ourselves to speculate what they might have been doing in that dark and lonely vale, so clearly under-dressed. That was territory we were not yet prepared to explore.
Alas, all things are finite.This includes museum visiting hours. We lingered in the galleries as long as we could, but eventually we were flushed out and onto the street. The storm had ceased its howling and crashing, and fleeting patches of blue appeared and as quickly disappeared.
“I hadn’t realized how late it was getting. This has been a long day.”
“This is the end of it, then? For us. For today, I mean,” she hastened to add. Susan’s voice was a bit plaintive. Apparently, she wasn’t ready for an ending.
“Well… that’s not what I was saying. I was beginning to note how hungry I’m getting. How about dinner? There’s some nice places over on Lexington. Once we’ve sated the beast we can talk about what’s next.”
As we walked along in near silence, I was a bit startled to hear my thoughts become audible via Susan’s voice. “You know, despite the inevitable I-told-you-so, I’m going to call Jackie and thank her for being so stubborn. It’s been a long time since I’ve had such a day, and I would have missed it if she hadn’t been so insistent that we really needed to try once more.”
“I’ll second your voice, but caution her not to start knitting baby booties. That would be rather premature!”
Susan laughed. “You do know her well, don’t you?”
“Since second grade, I’m afraid. We were supposed to be married and raising kids by the time we hit middle school, according to her.”
“Middle school? That’s sort of rushing it, even for Jackie.”
“Well, since it was about five years in the future, it was almost forever away. That was her logic.”
“How did you escape?”
“She moved to Washington in fifth grade. By the time she moved back, in high school, I wasn’t the light of her life anymore. Poor me.”
“Poor you. Dumped before you had a real chance. She’s a heart-breaker, that woman is. She measured most guys by comparing them to this funny-looking boy she grew up with, who was her first and best true friend as she put it. Very few made the cut.”
“Well, she got the funny-looking part right, that’s for sure.”
Susan was quiet. Her fingers had run away, but they returned to wrap around my hand. She studied our hands carefully. A smile slowly illuminated her face. “Life is good.”
“Yes it is. Especially when it hits the point of unrestrained giddiness.”
“Unrestrained giddiness? Uh-oh. What are you proposing?”
“I propose that we after dinner we go back to the park.”
“First, to the terrace. Let’s go dance by the fountain, kiss on the bridge, laugh and sing until we get to the other side. Then we can decide to where after that.”
And that’s what we set out to do. People probably thought we were crazy when we waltzed around Bethesda Fountain. We didn’t care; we ignored the amused looks. We were laughing and having so much fun that we were soon joined by another couple, and then another. We were all waltzing to our internal tunes. Boy, did we feel alive and frisky.
Finally, out of breath but glowing, we sidled away from the party we had instigated. As proposed, we stopped in the middle of Bow Bridge. After a bout of last-minute shy hesitation, we shared a non-shy first kiss. We briefly came up for air, and were in the midst of another lingering kiss when the rain started again. We decided to head for the 85th Street exit. We were about halfway there, rushing along and semi-successfully dodging raindrops, laughing and singing, hand in hand, our arms gaily swinging. Our enthusiasm was dampened when the pitter-patter of raindrops became a deluge of raindrops. Rather quickly we were soaked.
“This hard rain has to pass. Let’s stop under a tree until it slows down,” I half-shouted to be heard over the cacophony.
“Over there.” Susan pointed to a substantial oak by the side of the path.
We raced under it, and stopped, out of breath and doubled over. After regaining our breath, we stood and watched in the lamp light as the sheets of rain poured down. The storm suddenly redoubled its intensity, as gusts of wind swayed the trees.
“We’re soaked. My place is close. Should we head there as soon as it lets up? I promise to behave.”
“I’m not concerned about your behavior. By now my blouse is as diaphanous as our young lover’s gown. It’s not hiding anything. I’d happily shed it just to be warm.” As if to punctuate her comment, Susan shivered.
I gathered her in my arms to warm her a bit. We began a slow soggy waltz beneath our leafy canopy. Susan smiled up at me in spite of her sodden clothes, and I pulled her close. Her body settled into mine as we slowly shuffled about under our sheltering tree, performing our rain dance.
And then it happened. I felt a thud on my head and left shoulder, then nothing more. A sudden gust of wind had slammed into the tree above us. Unseen and unheard, a limb had broken off.
And now we circle back to the beginning. I gradually became aware that I no longer had my former existence. At first I couldn’t figure out what had happened. Something-everything-had changed, but I didn’t realize why everything seemed so different.
Eventually it struck me-no pun intended. My world was now empty. I was gone; thrust into a void. Everything and everyone I had known was gone from me, and me from them. In the midst of a single superb point of happiness everything had changed.
Would it have killed anyone to let me be for a while? A few more years, that’s what I need. That’s what I want. Even a few more days, a few hours like my body’s last. At least a few more achingly beautiful joyful hours, dancing with Susan. That’s not too much to ask, is it?