There is a man out there in the broken state of our own banal Universe who turns thirty-seven this Thursday.
He, all sweating and anxious, swats a mosquito with the palm of his left hand, causing a skerrick of blood to run down his thigh and drop onto the pavement below. Another man might not think much of it, but this soon to be thirty-seven year old did. As he watched the blood soak into the dusty asphalt he couldn’t help but think of it as a marker of something profound. A mini-death had just taken place and would now be etched into the ashen street as proof of a life that used to be lived. Such proof would remain there until the rough soles from a population of burdened feet would trudge over it, forcing it deep down towards the earths boiling core, where it would evaporate and be laid to rest among the sodden remains of the Universe’s dirt.
It was merely another mini-death to the man, but to the unsuspecting mosquito it was a death much larger. This much he understood, but then again, such blood suckers were fated to become smudges on a man’s hot, white and sticky thigh. He knew enough about the order of things.
The mosquito wasn’t the first animal whose death he'd had a hand in. When he was a toddler he’d watched his statuesque mother pour a tin of fish food into a bowl of colourful goldfish. He watched as they rushed towards the surface of the water, greeting her maternal love with a desperate thrashing, pathetically begging to be fed. Just like his mother they were naively beautiful.
Like many children, he wished he were older and wanted to act in the same way adults did. So he crawled up the dark timber of the mantelpiece to sprinkle some food into the bowl. Carefully and methodically he tipped the tin towards the bowl, a sprinkle here, a sprinkle there, making sure each fish was left full and satisfied. He emptied the remains of the tin into the bowl. With each sprinkle he imagined his slender wrists to look just like his mother’s – sprinkle, sprinkle, sprinkle.
Two hours later his mother was screaming his name from the living room. When he entered he saw the fish bobbing along the top of the water, nursing bloated stomachs that pointed towards the ceiling. Their black eyes were clouded and their scales protruded clumsily. He was sickened. Were they dead? It wouldn’t be the first time he had seen something dead.
His mother said:
“What did you do?”
He didn’t know what was more horrifying: the swollen punched out scales of the dying fish or his mother’s ferocious stare. All he knew was that the beautiful fish now floated upwards, with pumped up stomachs that made him want to grab his own and hurl its contents out onto the living room floor.
He was convinced he hadn’t meant to kill them. At the time he believed it was an innocent accident, but age brought with it an uncertainty, expedited by the let down of experience. As he grew older he couldn’t quite shake the feeling that perhaps he may have meant it. Perhaps he may have even wanted it. Sometimes when he lay in bed at night, he would close his eyes to scores of swollen goldfish, bobbing along the water senselessly- fat and wet and wordless.
He likes to think of this moment as his first mini-death.
He believed a person’s life was made up of a series of mini-deaths, haphazardly stitched together to form a fabric of experience, of pleasure, of pain. Death was disguised by the fabric of life.
In his job as an airport attendant he'd watched many people wear the garments of their own mini-deaths. Some bold and proud, others hunched over and sallow. With a gesture of pretending importance he would ask each person for their passport, scanning the pages for hints of their adventures. He liked his job because mini-deaths were more likely to occur in people who were dislodged between their homelands and their preferred destinations. Airports always attracted those types of people. Type’s that would spend years roaming through foreign lands, endlessly searching for clues to the past, visiting other people’s birthplaces for hints of their own meagre beginnings, just trying to make sense of the whole thing. The ‘whole thing’ being life and you know what life’s like—trying to connect the past to the present has always been a tricky business.
These international strangers would hijack his thoughts when he lay awake at night. To him they carried an almost ethereal charisma; daring to waltz through the forbidden spaces in his mind he would never allow himself to go. An Albanian father would slap a child in a busy marketplace. An American tourist would collapse next to his burning bible in the Australian outback. A boy would sit on the edge of a Parisian balcony, contemplating.
What these international strangers had in common was this: the mini-deaths they stumbled upon were just a practice for the real death, the death that would come when life became irreversibly burdensome all of a sudden. When the open-ended futures of their own restless meanderings become a kind of vacuum and they are left staring into never-ending blots of grey and choking on the dust. That’s when they would look for an out. They never realised this when they handed their passports to him. They were acting out their own moribund death rehearsals and they didn’t even know it.
Over the years he couldn’t help thinking: if life were nothing but a succession of vaporous mini-deaths, then this made the eventual death all the more anti-climatic. It was almost as if the mini-deaths were the real pain and that the true death was actually a reprieve, a renaissance, a kind of fuck you to the living. He posed this same statement to his mother once, to which she responded:
“Hurry up and finish your chicken. Remember to take the bones out to the bin when you’re done. I don’t want the dog to end up eating them or he’ll choke on them like he did the last time.”
She always struggled to respond to statements, just like he struggled to follow them up with something. Whenever he stopped to think of the tender threads that held his own mini-deaths together, his mother and the chicken bones would always come in at mini-death number two.
Number three came much later.
It happened by the river when he and Charlie broke away from their high school group to go fishing.
Charlie had the hands of a true seventeen year old, fair and spotted, not yet ruined by the labour of life and work. He reeked of adolescence. His hands, like his limbering legs, had grown too fast for his body. That’s what the man remembered most about that day at the river, Charlie and his overgrown hands. He watched as Charlie massaged a piece of bait between his forefinger and thumb, priming it for the hook. He looked alone in his own moment of introspection, staring at the bait as if it held some important answer for him. He was captivated by it, rubbing the morsel back and forth. Charlie had an open intensity to him that belied his years. His default look was one of exposed agitation. That was what drew people to him the man thought. How strange and wonderful he had looked in that moment, an awkward teenager with hands fumbling back and forth.
The man gave Charlie a gentle shove.
“Get on with it.”
Charlie shoved him back.
A couple more shoves continued before it happened. The last push angled their bodies into a dangerously close range. The man hadn’t anticipated this and in a brief mistake of a moment went into kiss him, on his open mouthed lips—full and hard.
Charlie grabbed his shoulders and pushed him back.
“Man, were friends ok, were just friends. You can’t go about doing that.”
The man thinks Charlie's push wasn’t as hard as it could have been. Perhaps he mumbled back a ‘sorry’, but he can’t be sure of this. Afterwards he can’t recall any of his own words or actions, only Charlie's. He can’t stop thinking about the possibilities. He scrutinises every syllable and movement for any possible nuance of meaning but it's no use. They continue on as friends.
That is until Charlie’s father’s funeral, when the precarious boundaries surrounding them were blown apart by the disarmament of grief. At the wake Charlie blundered into the man’s arms. Consumed by the defenceless fog confounding him, he pressed the man firmly against the lattice of his backyard and leaned his chest into him. The humidity of their closely held bodies caused an unfamiliar affection to charge through the man. At each touch his senses awakened, his fingertips prickling, his arms ablaze. When their lips met he thought he would cry. But then the familiar numbness set in and he duly lost the feeling.
It wasn’t until later that afternoon, when Charlie threw rocks at his father’s grave, that the man finally felt that guilty jolt of excitement. Charlie threw the rocks over and over. They pelted through the air with a muscular ferocity, a glaring contrast to their stone cold target.
“Violence is the sum of all things,” Charlie yelled.
He turned to the man.
“This rock – it’s violent. Your fucking pinstriped shirt, I swear to god, it’s violent. Everything is full of violence, especially death, don’t you get that?”
At this the man’s heart jutted out from within him. He was intoxicated. He loved the whole pain of Charlie, the whole tragedy of him. He loved their newfound fatherless attraction, he felt comfortable with it. He wanted to tell him but the words were stuck somewhere and besides, he didn’t think violence was the sum of all things, no, he didn’t think that at all. Violence was merely a part of the performance, it wasn’t the only thing housed in the engine room of death. Death had its own unmistakable heartbeat – dull and singular. He felt the dreary urge of it loom towards him every day.
So he answered:
“Maybe, I’m not really sure.”
There are things that are said and there are things that are unsaid. The unsaid from that day changed the rest of it. Charlie had broken off a piece of pain and offered it up, vulnerable and willing but how do you carry a pain like that when you are burdened by the weight of your own?
When Charlie married Clare there was nothing violent about it. The “I do” was docile. Clare was timid and unassuming. The man wondered what the two talked about when they came home from work at night. He wondered about that a lot.
The day after the wedding a torrent of unspoken words burst out. Unforgiving words were exchanged. He told Charlie he would never speak to him again, that it wasn’t something he could bear, and so Charlie responded:
“If that’s what you want mate.”
As Charlie backed out of the driveway his car ran over a fallen twig. The man felt the whole length of it snap. He felt it so acutely that he could have sworn it was attached to him. As the car’s taillights drowned down the highway the man knelt onto the grass and the full force of it hit him. The twig was his extended limb and it was broken.
Years later the man spoke to Charlie again.
He'd awoken with an unnerving feeling that something bad was about to happen. He had the sudden urge to tell Charlie that although he was too broken to speak to him, that it wasn't hate, it was just the heaviness of it all. He got in the car and drove, found himself at Charlie’s house and waited, staring noiselessly at a white, crisp, front door. When the door opened the man’s lips burned like wildfire:
“Charlie, I hate that we don’t speak. What if something bad was to happen? Something really bad, like one of those true tragedies, I’d never forgive myself. Please tell me you don’t hate me.”
All Charlie gave him was the exhausted look of a man too old for such a rant, too tired to fight. So he said:
“What would be the point of that?”
“You know, in case something bad was to happen.”
“Bad things are always happening.”
“Well, I guess.”
“Plus, you’ve been gone a long time.”
“Look, can we talk it over some other time? It’s been a big week and well, you know how it is.”
And just like that the man’s final mini-death was appropriated.
For the next day he awoke to a nihilistic wind beating at his bedroom window and he knew it was time. When he stepped into the blinding air he felt more alive than ever, he felt he was truly a participant of the living. His bones pulsated with anticipation. He felt every inch of himself. As he walked towards the cliff face, he thought about the sum of all things and thought perhaps there was some violence in them.
He stepped calmly off the edge of the cliff, meeting the wild corners of the rocks below.
On the opposite side of town to where the man’s broken body lay Charlie is slicing a tomato. He misses and slices his finger instead. It doesn’t hurt but the juice from the tomato matches the colour of his blood. It makes him shudder. Then it makes his chest heave. Then the tears are fat, the tears are full, they are falling from nowhere and there it is – life disguising death again.
The man with the broken body had forgotten to remember one last thing: the senselessness of those dying goldfish, bobbing along the surface of the water – fat and wet and wordless.