"I've looked at life from both sides now.
From win and lose, and still somehow
it's life's illusions I recall;
I really don't know life at all."
- Both Sides Now, Joni Mitchell
Many people don't appreciate meeting strangers. It's often tolerated rather than celebrated. I believe strangers are the only thing in our lives that act as a variable against all the constants; sure love, tragedy, life and death are unpredictable, but they're expected as much in a lifetime as blinking or sneezing. The only people who can truly surprise us are strangers, strangers like Andrew Finnigan, the eleven-year-old boy I met at the cashier desk whose seemingly unlimited purchases of various art supplies looked like a pile of discarded rainbows as it neared the end of the conveyor belt.
He was building the universe, he told me, a science project that would send Marcus Sanders right out of his oversized, acid-wash jeans: a trend, Andrew continued, that would one day revert the world back to loincloths. I referred to a fact I learned from my Astronomy teacher that the outermost layer of the sun is actually hotter than its surface. At this, I heard an exasperated sigh emit noisily from the elderly woman next in line. She held a basket full of fake flowers and clay vases as if she were late to a Martha Stewart taping. I thought of pretending to be unable to locate a price tag on one of Andrew's purchases and make the woman wait agonizingly long as I send the new employee in the wrong direction. Instead, I rang gave her incorrect change.
I caught the last bit of Andrew's plan in which he would illustrate an exploding star by using different colored tissue paper pulled outward by fishing line in a kind of action freeze-frame. I truly thought that was a genius idea and asked him to visit the same time, same day next week to show me the complete piece. It was at this point his mother, a pale, businessperson type with platinum highlights, appeared before me with her plastic VISA card. At a glance, she was named Marian. She charged ninety-four dollars without so much as a blink than a bored stare, handing the license to me so quickly I almost dropped it when she let go too soon: if it had fallen on the counter, I had no nails to attempt picking it up.
I didn't expect to see the boy so soon, if at all, but to my surprise, he had appeared the very next day at the same time. And during my lunch break we both sat outside in the fall weather right in front of the store, I wearing my employee apron and him in a red baseball cap that caused his ears to stick out. He presented the universe in a box exactly as he would during his class presentation, he promised me. He reminded me of my younger brother, who would have been fourteen next month.
I applauded him after he finished with an exaggerated bow, saluting to people sitting in invisible balconies. I clapped crazily for him, gazing into the box that - if I squinted - resembled those satellite pictures of space, no doubt Andrew's main source of inspiration.
I half-mumbled some sorry excuse to ditch out of work for the rest of the day and took Andrew to the pizza place that just began opening chains on the east coast, this one in particular right across the street. I didn't care if my boss noticed, I rarely missed work, and those two times were for the funeral. Andrew and I devoured a large New York cheese, our favorite kind, and carried a conversation more profound and interesting than if I was speaking to God himself. It put good faith in me for hope of the future, that there was hope in the form of a younger generation amidst contrary belief. I envisioned Andrew as president, a father, a hero - there was nothing that kid couldn't amount to in my eyes.
Later that night, as we sat back at the front of the store, minutes before my boss would come out and lock the front doors, a stranger approached Andrew and I and took as much fascination in his project as I had. And as he reached out to tap a hanging Mars, he pulled out a .44 Magnum bringing us to our feet. Demanding things I'm sure even he later realized we didn't, and wouldn't, have, he began to yell, and I felt Andrew jump under my hands on his shoulders. Demanding and demanding, and me denying and denying.
I stepped in front of Andrew as I should have stepped in front of Eli, as I should have protected him instead of being angry with him. I never thought looking down the barrel of a gun would make me feel so insignificant, as if I were one of Andrew's hanging planets amidst all the stars in the universe.
I said that my strength was perfection, which also happened to be my weakness. In high school, a woman from a fashion design school talked about proper interviewing, and that's what she said to say. I've given my little speech about perfection at every interview I've ever had, and gotten the job each time. I believed it was solely responsible for my career achievements.
My sister passed her MCATs after the third time taking them, and we celebrated at some nightclub her friends took her to. My sister didn't know I met an entrepreneur. My sister didn't know I drank him under the table. My sister didn't know he pushed me up against a bathroom stall and raped me. But I let him. It hurt, it was rough, possessive - things people pay $9.99 to see at two o'clock in the morning on a Wednesday night. And he apologized afterward. My sister didn't know he collapsed and hit his head on the toilet, finally resting on the sickly yellow tile of the bathroom floor where a pool of blood began to appear. And my sister didn't know I walked out of that bathroom and joined everyone in buying her another round of drinks.
Sitting in that interviewer's office, I saw a glimpse of a newspaper under a small pile of files, a headline about something concerning carbon emissions, and I wanted to ask if I could check if there was anything reported about him, if he was dead, if he was alive. I said nothing and shook her hand, unable to tear my eyes away from that newspaper.
It was the first time I had used that line and did not get the job.
It wasn't his first time, and it wasn't hers either. They both knew what they were doing – yeah, she knew exactly what she was doing, but it was his first time on ecstasy, and he could feel the rapid pulse in his forehead as he leaned down to kiss her. When he pulled away and looked down, her lips were blue, and he loosened his hands from around her neck; his fingers left fading white marks around her jugular. He didn't know if she had died before or after he came inside of her, but he remembered thinking it didn't matter. Not anymore, anyway.
Walking out of the bedroom and into the party, he kept feelings hands on his wrists, as if someone was wrapping their fingers around them to prove how skinny he was. His mouth was dry and he knew he looked wildly insane as he gulped at the air, trying to swallow at moisture that wasn't there. Everything was so vivid and shining; he could see the music in the air floating above everyone's heads as they danced, and for some reason, he could only then compare it to the mid-Atlantic current.
It was all so clear then: the room, the house, the people inside the rooms, the rooms inside the house, the house inside the people.
It felt like an epiphany and he started to dance, celebrating being alive and not dead. Dead like her. How could he not be celebrating life, feeling an empathetic connection with each person around him, as if they all had strings attached to their wrists with pulses of energy flowing through it, giving the whole room a heartbeat. When he tripped over his own feet, the girl beside him helped him straighten up before continuing to dance. He idolized her. He wanted to kiss her. He wanted to hug her. He wanted to make love to her. He wanted to have children with her. But he danced with her until he could no longer feel his legs, and then he fell asleep.
He thought about death and what it would be like if he were about to die. He had been a listener his entire life, never a conversationalist, never one who had stories to tell or something interesting to say, but he expected he would suddenly have a lot to say. He would tell his parents that it really had been his pipe they found in his room; that his psychology teacher didn't lose his test, but instead, he had skipped that day of class; and he would tell his little brother to get a hobby, take up a sport, something, anything, to get him out of the house before it was too late. And then he wondered what people would confess to him. He thought he knew what people would say, things along the lines of how much they loved him or how much they valued his loyal friendship – things he already knew; then he thought of how disappointing it would be if none of them divulged secrets to him. That, of course, would solidify his theory about being the most uninteresting, unaccomplished person alive. Not even the people he loved had interesting things to say about himself.
He would only think about how the people he knew saw him because he hoped that it was nothing like how he saw himself.
A scream echoed in the back of his mind and he didn't bother to open his eyes until he realized that he had left his dead girlfriend in the bedroom. He didn't know how many hours or days or seconds he had left before everything disappeared, before his life ended like hers.
Death didn't seem so far away anymore.
I should have known better than to drive that night. Flashes of images like a movie montage unsettled the placid waters of my thoughts with anxious screeching tires, extinguished lamplights, and cryptic white noise. Unlike those unfortunate people on whom darkness has reigned in movies, I was not acting. Electricity surges and blackouts have been accounted across the country, unexplainable events marking the beginning of the apocalypse as believed by many. And driving down that paved abyss of raining mist, my eyes beginning to play tricks on me, I hoped God did exist and that He or some otherworldly force was looking out for me. Human nature tends to disregard lifelong beliefs when death is imminent.
Clouds of illuminated mist fell over the flickering lampposts resembling snow through my fogged windshield, and coldness crept into the car as if it had been snow. The presence of such cold, the enveloping chasm of invisible darkness that prickled behind the ears, created a stagnant silence that drowned out the dying hum of the car's engine. The silence pained as if a siren screamed into my ear, only it was nothingness that made me flinch.
The car rolled to a stop, and the coldness became freezing. I closed my eyes instead of looking into the mirrors, like those fleeting moments of uncertainty before closing the medicine cabinet, fearing the reflection wouldn't be my own. The car began to jerk from side to side as if being punched from the outside; the roof gave an agonizing moan under heavy weight, and muted voices pressed themselves against the windows. I imagined large gaping mouths opening against the frail glass showing nothing but a putrid abyss spewing ravenous saliva. Fingers traced my outline with nails that wailed against the glass, sounds all around as cloaked movements encircled me. As the car began to rock violently side to side, I was flung against the window where shrieks bellowed in my ear, impatient pants torrid with anger.
Suddenly, all the windows in the caexploded inward, piercing the silence, piercing my skin. They continued, their breath billowing against my neck, my face, sucking at the air in the car and taking it right out of me. I opened my mouth to scream a sound I had never needed to use as sickly icy fingers wrapped themselves around my tightly closed eyes. Then, a blaring white light breathed warmth back into my dying body. The headlights of an oncoming car blinded me even through my eyelids.
The man asked me to roll down my window before asking if I was okay. I started my engine and we drove off in separate directions. The cold began to linger, but it was easily lost if I sped up. I could feel them watching me as I stepped out of my car, as I unlocked my front door, feeling them staring me down from atop the roof; I sensed them behind the closed blinds as I got into bed, their heavy, collective breathing the last thing I heard as the pills guided me into sleep.
My clock's fading red numbers flashing 12:00.