At least once a day, I like to go over the details of my own death.
Not all the time—just when I’ve got a spare moment, walking home from class or during particularly monotonous lectures. Some people daydream about tropical islands, or tall ships, or sex with their classmates. I spend that time confronting the grim reality of my own imminent demise.
I might be hit by a bus, or fall out a window, or get knifed outside a comedy club. Sometimes I die saving a child from a fire or a pretty girl from some thugs in an alley—I dodge the first punch, maybe even the second, but then comes the third, and the bat or the pipe or the crowbar, splitting my skull open like a ripe honeydew. But those are the exceptions. Usually it’s more random: the type of thing that won’t read well in the back of a newspaper, except as a cautionary tale. A neglected toe infection turns gangrenous. I go swimming in a thunderstorm and get zapped. I take my chances on expired milk.
I wouldn’t call this preoccupation suicidal; this is a purely speculative exercise. Which is not to say that those thoughts don’t occasionally cross my mind, nor am I above the common, college-aged brand of existential crises which sometimes leave me paralyzed in bed for a week or two, listening to folk music and letting the twenty-two year blooper reel of my life replay behind my eyelids until I sort of wish I’d never been born. It comes and goes. Anyway, I’m not taking my life in these fantasies—it just sort of happens. I’ve never been quite sure why.
Because in general I’ve mostly enjoyed things so far, even if there’s not much keeping me here. I’m fairly reclusive, I maintain only a few close confidants, and I haven’t yet made much of a dent in the historical record. Would I be missed for more than a month or so? Probably not.
And lately it’s become obvious that the apparently solid, permanent details of my life—the ones I hang my coat on, if not my whole identity—are really totally soft and perishable. My daily class schedule, my nightly roommate hangout, the Saturday apartment party, the long hours in the library, even my sometimes-rocky-but-mostly-comfortable relationship with my girlfriend—all of this has an expiration date. And that date is June 13, 2015: the day I graduate college and go off to do something important, somewhere interesting, chasing paper in New York, Alaska, California, Rhode Island, Rhodesia, Des Moines, the Upper Peninsula, West Bengal, or West Texas, forever, but really just until I die. That last part’s a sure thing.
What still scares me is the unpredictability of how it will go down. It helps to imagine it: Lightning strike. Bear attack. Cardiac arrest. I’ve been through it all a million times now, so that whenever I trip on a staircase, or when I’m tossed on my head in a rugby match, or when my back tire careens off my bicycle at high-speed, even as I’m struggling frantically to stay upright, I get a little spike of pleasure in the recognition. Ah – so this is how it happens after all.
I don’t have a death wish, exactly. In fact, death is the part I’m least looking forward to. I’m pretty averse to painful experiences and can’t stand the sight of blood in any quantity, let alone the oozing mess that will follow my inevitable stabbing, shooting, disembowelment, or freak decapitation by tractor. No matter how many times I play it out in my head, that part is definitely going to be uncomfortable.
It’s what comes after death that forms the best part of my daydreams—the part where I leave my bloodied and broken body behind, and roam the earth as I please. That’s when the fun starts.
I’m not one for vanity, so I don’t stick around to watch whatever outpourings of grief might follow my untimely passing, although I can’t resist enjoying the formal email sent out by the administration, informing the student body of my demise: “He is remembered as a quiet young man who always saw the best in people. He wrote for the Chicago Maroon and…” Here the associate dean’s hands pause over his keyboard, his eyes examining my less-than-stellar transcript and then the Google Search results for further evidence of my career as a student: my brief appearance on the novice men’s crew team; that time I was almost expelled for playing saxophone in the library; a few embarrassing mentions on Facebook. He finishes the email: “His friends describe him as a pretty good guy.”
After that, I’m out. Unencumbered and free to explore the globe, I hit all the hotspots: the pyramids, the Great Wall, Mount Everest, the depths of the ocean—everything is open to my perusal. I peek in on secret government meetings and beavers inside their dams. I swim through lava and sleep next to lions. I watch movies and concerts, free of charge. I catch up on my reading. I look over people’s shoulders as they browse the Web. I backpack in the south of France. I spend an appropriate amount of time—perhaps even an inappropriate amount of time—in women’s locker rooms. I nap a lot.
When I was a kid, I entertained similar, albeit less macabre fantasies of disappearance and undetected travel. I’ve always been light on my feet, and preternaturally quiet; by age seven I could ascend and descend the length of my house’s ancient staircase without so much as a creak. I knew all the best hiding spots, logging a lot of hours in closets, under sinks, and in the wooded hollow behind my backyard. Over the course of several recesses I managed to burrow under the splintered foundations of my school’s playground and made it my own personal hang out spot. At night, I took to my town’s empty streets like a scrawny ghoul.
Some people—mainly my siblings, who’d gotten in the habit of checking behind chairs and sofas whenever they entered a room—thought I was weird, and they were probably right. I was never comfortable in group settings; I gather I had some kind of difficulty maintaining eye contact. And even after I’d learned to fake it through years of diligent observation, my interest in the complex alchemy of social interaction had always been anthropological, rather than participatory. All of which is to say that I kind of needed my space.
Later I tried to augment my skills of evasion with advanced, quasi-mystical techniques. I experimented with astral projection and lucid dreaming. I considered taking up the art of Ninjutsu, although the nearest training center was 200 miles away, in Marquette, and run by a guy who called himself “Ninja Josh.” Near the end of middle school, I’d started to peruse poorly designed Tripod and Geocities websites for methods on becoming “truly invisible,” most of which required a paid subscription and no small amount of delusion. I didn’t have much of a knack for it.
Besides, if I could disappear, I’d still be there, even if no one could see me. Astral travelers and ninjas and Invisible Men are missed; they’re looked for. But I’m past that now. After I’m dead, no one is looking for me. Nobody’s attention is needling me; nobody’s trying to reach me via email; nobody’s checking sofas for me anymore. Now that I don’t have to worry about being seen, I’m free to devote all my attention to seeing. Seeing behind stars. Under hills. Inside clocks and two-stroke engines to find out what makes them tick. Maybe inside people, too, peeking into their heads to watch all the little neurons and axons and whatnot firing together. It’s all right there in front of me.
Still, sometimes—not all the time; just when I’m feeling restless—I may succumb to the urge to bother the living; maybe knock a vase over, or flick some lights on and off. I doubt I’ll have any major debts or grudges to settle, and, besides, the specifics of being dead make it difficult to be more than a minor annoyance to anyone. Without corporeal fingers, even an act as simple as writing “Get Out!” on a fogged up mirror takes hours. So I tend to move on.
And for the first ten, the first hundred, the first thousand years, this whole death thing would be very entertaining, and maybe even everything I’ve always wanted out of life. But it’s hard not to think that, as much as there is to see and watch and look at in the wide world, I might get a little bored. Lonely, even. I want to touch things again, and make people laugh instead of cold or mildly frightened. Against the solitude of a post-death eternity, the faded memory of my social life follows me like a curse. I miss it.
So I take to my old haunts, retrace my old paths, walking the quarter-mile from my apartment on 55th to my girlfriend’s place on Woodlawn, over and over, just to get a little taste of it again, although my finger passes through the buzzer when I finally make it to the door. I go to the library and try to study. I write papers that will never be due. I sit in lecture halls, wander through book stacks, and stand awkwardly in frat house corners, sipping warm PBR and realizing—too late—that I’d spent most of my life living like I was basically dead already.
This is where the fantasy starts to lose its appeal. When I think about what’s coming—apparently, an afterlife of wandering apartment hallways alone forever until the heat death of the universe finally obliterates me, or doesn’t—I realize that I’ve been doing myself no favors by ducking into closets and scrambling up trees. I’m trying to get used to subjecting myself to the company of others, now, and visa versa, trying to get enough life in me to tide me over for eternity, hoping that I won’t want to come back to it again. Which all seems really super unlikely. Even so, I’m trying.
I spent a year abroad before college, working at an orphanage. It was an all-boys home, although a woman lived there too—the orphanage director’s sister. She’d died ten years ago in a fire on the property, and the boys wouldn’t leave their room at night for fear of running into her. At the time I thought it was pretty stupid; why stay in the slums of Calcutta when you had the whole world open to you? And I continued to think that, even after I sometimes woke up in the middle of the night with the sense that there was someone standing just beside my bed, right there. Almost touching me. Or trying to.