01 Feb Do you know what happens to a body after it falls off a building?
“I don’t have the courage to put this feeling into words, but we both know it’s true: when you die, it won’t matter to me.”
That line is never spoken during a breakup, but it’s never truly absent. Ending a romantic relationship means removing an everyday person from your everyday life. Each meeting thereafter will be a special occasion, a break from the norm, and the next inevitable parting will be nothing more than a return to normal.
“We can still be friends.”
No, we can’t. Friends share a common interest. When said interest was exposing each other’s most vulnerable body parts for frantic groping, every subsequent interaction will always be a drastically diminished version of what connecting once was.
Both parties know there isn’t any point.
So they drift. Everyone is drifting, because permanence is an illusion we’ve created to deal with the omnipresent knowledge that we only have thirty thousand days on earth if we’re lucky. Those who don’t drift together inevitably drift apart. One day, the person who shared your secret fetish is just someone that you used to know, but don’t anymore.
And when one of them dies, the other one almost certainly won’t know about it. The drift will have been too great. With years gone by since the last conversation, the final vestiges of communication will be long gone. Neither party will know who dies first.
Breaking up means accepting this – every part of it – in a single instant.
I wanted to explain these thoughts to Veronica after her “we can still be friends” line.
Instead, I shouted, “I AGREE, Veronica, because fuck me, FUCK MICHAEL, I deserve to hurt for being me and I could NEVER SUFFER ENOUGH TO MAKE YOU HAPPY!”
The dam broke, and she sobbed. The blonde hair fell over her face in the way that I had always thought was cute, and her tiny shoulders shook. That had always been my cue to hold her tight and kiss the base of her neck, but I let her shake all alone while I stared down at my interlocked fingers.
I was hurting her, and it was cathartic.
She stopped crying, and the silence was awkward.
Then her pain wasn’t cathartic anymore.
Snippets of the words I’d wanted to say settled fuzzily on my brain like dew. “Look, I didn’t – I didn’t say it right. Just give me a second,” I explained softly. “Just give me a chance to – to say it better.”
She got up and walked to the door. I darted after her, and the words swirled inside my head.
“Just give me a second, I can say it better!” I yelled.
She always hated it when I yelled.
Veronica didn’t look back as she pulled open the door and ran outside.
“Wait!” I struggled to pull on my shoes. I hopped, fell, split my lip, and swore.
By the time I had gotten to my feet and headed out the apartment door, she had gone too far for me to discern the direction she had taken.
Veronica never answered my phone calls or texts after that; the drift had already gone too far. I knew that she was trying to get me to stop contacting her by cutting off all communication, but I was determined to persevere. If nothing else, I wanted to be right one last time.
She took that away from me.
She didn’t care if I died, and she was going to face that fact.
I had climbed to the 19th floor from our (formerly) shared apartment on the 13th, and was staring at the slate gray sky that Portland, Oregon thought was best suited to comfort me.
“Tell you what, God,” I said to the sky. “I’ll give you until the end of this cigarette to show me a sign that you care.” I flicked away a tear. “One day, you’re going to take me anyway. I’m giving you a chance to show why I’m loved enough to delay the inevitable.”
I told myself I didn’t want a sign.
I really wanted a sign.
I sobbed when the burning edge came within a quarter inch of the filter.
My eyes burned.
“I hate you,” I whispered as I pitched forward. In a panic, I scrambled to grasp the edge, but was far too late.
A spark illuminated a face, and I was afraid. He was lean, nearly gaunt; his countenance was far too wise for the smile that he was faking. The sandy blonde hair was deliberately unplanned. He wore a dark coat with the collar flipped up past his ears. The spark was a cigarette perched delicately between his lips, the smoke slightly obscuring his features.
“Who are you?” I asked in breathless shock.
“So many people want to know that, Sojourner. Why not concern yourself with the same question?”
I looked for a response, but found none.
He breathed deeply from the cigarette, then let the smoke out slowly. “But names allow us to pretend we understand the people whose history we’ll never know. If I say ‘Veronica,’ how does that make you feel?”
Adrenaline and nausea flowed through me.
“Did you know she’s already fucked another man? What does the name ‘Trevor’ mean to you?”
The nausea and my heart rate both doubled.
“But they’re just names, Sojourner. You will never know those people.”
“True, and you hate the fact that you knew it before I told you.” His fake smile offset his forlorn inflection, and I gave up trying to understand.
The man sighed. “When I sat in the fourth corner of Delhi, watching the Trinity balance the scales, someone called me ‘Agni.’ Let’s pretend that’s the extent of who I am.”
I pressed my palms against my eyes, and I tried to remember why my head would be exploding in pain after a soft touch.
but I was far too late
I yanked my hands away and stared at Agni. “Holy fuck, did I just die and go to hell?”
“What makes you think dying is necessary to visit hell?” he shot back with the cigarette bouncing between his lips.
I had no answer.
“What do you think heaven and hell are, really?” Agni pressed.
A panic attack was lingering at the edges of my vision, smacking its lips at the prospect of devouring me whole. “Why are you doing this to me?” I whispered.
“Agyaan!” he yelled as though he’d been burned. “I’m just a bystander in the life of every person who wants to blame external circumstances for the choices they make.” He pulled deeply at the cigarette, which didn’t seem to be getting any shorter. “Now, Sojourner. Answer my question honestly.”
Images of every shitty thing about my life rushed into my head. Rat-hole apartment, a boss that saw me as a (meager) tool for generating money, a mom who I knew didn’t care, and an ex-girlfriend who defined happiness as never talking to me again.
“Heaven is never feeling anything else, ever.” Pain bounced around my head like a ping pong ball as I wiped the tears from my eyes.
Agni narrowed his gaze. “And hell?”
I turned my head away from him. “Hell is feeling everything, all the pain, all at once.”
He burrowed his cobalt blue eyes into me before plucking the cigarette from between his lips. “Then tell me, o muse, what is the difference?”
I snorted in disgust. “Isn’t it obvious?”
The man slowly rubbed his palms across one another, precariously pinching the end of his cigarette between two knuckles. “What if I told you, Sojourner, that the only difference between what you love and what you hate is choice?”
“I would call you a liar.” The words escaped my lips before I could think of a response, but the reaction seemed justified.
He smiled, but it wasn’t happy. “Two doors, Sojourner.”
I became aware of two plain, white doors sitting in darkness. They did not suddenly appear, but I did not know how long I had been conscious of them.
“One door,” Agni explained with sudden weariness, “Leads to peace. You will see nothing, feel nothing, know nothing. Pain is simply unable to exist beyond this door, in the same way that colors cannot be used to measure your height.”
He didn’t point to either door, but I simply understood that he meant the one on the right.
“Beyond this door,” Agni explained as he reached for the knob on the left and pulled it, “is pain.”
The scream was so guttural, so base, that my first instinct was to kill the wretch that suffered badly enough to make that horrible noise.
Then I realized it was my mother.
I saw her frail, sobbing form beyond the door, shaking like a dry leaf in a hot storm. I reached out to her.
“Wait!” Agni yelled, dropping his cigarette to the ground as he blocked my advance with an outstretched arm. “This is a changing door. Once you go in, you can never come back.” His voice was strained. “What has been done can never be undone.”
I stared in agony at my screaming mother, understanding innately that she could neither see nor hear me.
I didn’t realize that I’d been crying until I heard my own gurgling voice. “Is she in hell?”
Agni plucked his cigarette from somewhere unseen and took another drag. “Heaven and hell aren’t places you can be, Sojourner. They can only ever exist in you.”
I pulled my hair in frustration. “But what’s making Mom feel hell?”
Agni looked at me sadly. “You are.”
The image beyond the door shifted to a broken body lying on a gurney.
It was so shattered that several moments passed before I realized I was looking at myself.
Blood and torn flaps of skin were interrupted by the odd protruding bone. I realized that it was the most painful thing that a parent could see; the visage was hell incarnate, handcrafted to deliver the maximum amount of agony that any human being was capable of processing.
“Well, Sojourner – which door do you choose?”
Rising panic made my head spin. “I don’t want either!” I hyperventilated. “I mean – I want parts of both!”
Agni shook his head. “It doesn’t work that way.”
My breathing quickened. “Well, I don’t know the full story! How can I make a decision without understanding all the facts?
He smiled. “It does work that way.”
Too many thoughts swirled at the same time. I hated my mom for being so hurt, and understood how much she must be hating me. It was because she loved me, which I both didn’t and did believe at the same time. I wanted to be with Veronica because she was perfect, except that she didn’t love me, which was the worst thing in the world, so I didn’t want her.
I stared at Agni. His image was blurred by my tears.
“I hate you for making me choose.”
He nodded once. “You’re welcome.”
I stared longingly at the door on the right as I walked through the one on my left.
Skin-shattering pain wrapped me like a blanket made of hurt. Tiny pinpricks of agony licked every crevice of my body as icy fire shredded nerves I had thought incapable of feeling so much.
Mom screamed. She lunged at me.
“Stay back!” a disembodied voice called from above me. “He’s been through hell, and he still has a long way to go.”
I had landed on an awning and bounced into a cluster of bushes. The fall was so high, though, that I’d broken both femurs, both tibias, my left arm in five places, my right arm in six places, and had more broken ribs than whole ones.
Mom had to care for me around the clock, which is something that she had not needed to endure since I was a year old.
It didn’t make any sense: the fact that I was great enough to evoke hell in someone else was a heaven that I’d resigned myself to never experiencing.
She had to sacrifice all of her favorite things to care for me at all hours.
That didn’t make any sense, either: giving up the things that had defined her life brought Mom a joy that I never truly seen.
“I’m sorry,” I mumbled through a mouth of broken teeth.
“I love you, too,” she answered.
I cried after wondering if I’d ever be whole again, and stopped crying when I considered that I’d never been whole in the first place.
I wanted to ask Mom if Veronica ever reached out to her, but never went through with it. We die in parts, and it happens too quickly. It’s best to keep the living pieces whole.
Mom fed me applesauce. It spilled on my scruffy chin and raggedy t-shirt. The entire affair was far beneath the dignity of what I’d expected at this stage in my life. “Why don’t you hate me?” I asked as she wiped my face like she did when I was a baby.
Mom stared at me in silence for a while. “You’ve given me a way to hurt. That’s all you ever were.” She sighed and squeezed my hand. “I never told you about your father,” she pressed, her breath catching.
“Yes, you did,” I whistled through broken teeth. “He left you after finding out you were pregnant.”
She wiped her eye. “I lied,” she heaved with a trembling breath. “He never knew about you.”
So Dad hadn’t chosen not to love me. He’d simply gone through the door of feeling nothing.
Her fingers crushed mine. Part of me wondered if she knew how much she was hurting me; another part understood that she was well aware. “He left me before I knew about you.” Muffled sobs overtook her. “And I was going to follow where your footsteps almost led. I’d decided on pills, though, not a rooftop.” Her voice was delicate as glass.
My arms were too broken to wipe my eyes. “Did you hear a voice offering you two choices?”
She looked out at the gray sky morning and nodded.