The Day I Died
I awoke that morning later than usual; the ramifications of copious amounts of champaigne rumbling through my head like a herd of elephants. An artist friend had fortunately established himself in the real world; after years of struggling with low-rent galleries, a well-known critic finally touted his paintings. Only days after the review appeared in the paper he was contacted by the owner of an upscale gallery, one where people actually bought works instead of just looking and leaving, eating the cheese and drinking the wine. I've done that, many a time, it's a way to spend a sunday with a lady friend. Yesterday, or the previous day, to be more accurate, was the first of his showings -- to last two weeks. So, a celebration was in order.
Tea helped bring me back to some semblance of life, although, strangely, my mind seemed rather clear, almost sharp. Heavy socializing often had this effect after the doldrums of aloneness. Too much time spent thinking is not good for you. Curiously, while having tea in the garden, I found myself reading a yellowed pamphlet I discovered -- hidden in my bookcase -- on Blaise Pascal's speculation that a vacuum existed above the atmosphere -- in outer space, no less. I had no idea what to make of it. How could he know? In the midst of pondering this I left my apartment and proceeded to breakfast, clearing my head in the doing, with an old friend of university days, or at least, I thought he was, at that time.
We'd bumped into one another the previous evening as I left Marie's salon west of the canal. It was drizzling so we both had our heads bowed and almost collided right there on the street. It was far too miserable to chat, and I was far too drunk, so we arranged to meet at Cafe Leboeuf, my favorite retreat. As I walked, thoughts of the vacuum of space gave over to thoughts of this friend from school. Just as suddenly I found myself entertaining a shadow of doubt brought on by the murkiness of aged memory; it had been years ago, after all. Had he really been a friend? How close? Or had we only shared a few classes together, the familiarity of a face from that richer and happier period in my life giving our relationship an unwarranted significance?
As I crossed streets and navigated absently through carriages and people, I ransacked my brain for proof, a single shred of experiential evidence to corroborate my inclination. He certainly considered us friends and remembered me almost instantly. In fact, it'd been on his insistence that I willingly -- out of loneliness? -- concurred. My emotional state had been rather dry of late, perhaps I was merely wishing it to be true.
*************By the time I arrived at the cafe I had decided to question him, surreptitiously, of course; I had no wish to offend. The spring air's warmth encouraged outside dining, and there he was already. I apologized for my tardiness although, in truth, I was early. We ordered from the waiter and immediately fell into an awkward silence. He knows, I thought. Or perhaps he equally only imagined a friendship that never existed. Could we both have been mistaken, a case of mutual mistaken idenities?
I chanced a breach with reminiscences of campus life, the oddities of buildings and certain professors, school events of which one couldn't possibly be unaware. He smiled contentedly but offered no commentary, deferring to my monologue without interruption. Eventually, my store of banalities ran depleted, the last loaf taken from the shelf. I waited. Breakfast was served, another pretense to stall. I felt irritation growing, at myself for blatant cowardice, always a problem. Partway through devouring the crepes -- I was famished -- he finally spoke.
"Forgive me but, I've forgotten your name. I am Julian, Julian Bernoulli. I must confess that in spite of last evening's somewhat enthusiastic encounter I have since been questioning the validity of our friendship. By that I don't mean our friendship is tarnished in some unsavory manner but,..., I have only the vaguest recollections. But nonetheless, I have to admit I know you from somewhere," he said, wagging a large index finger, "some striking past moment that retains import the details of which are not forthcoming. That is, the memory will not surface free and clear."
Relieved of the burden of forgetfullness I also confessed to similar difficulty. From where and when did we know one another? I told him I guessed school, but he informed me he had not attended my university.
"Why then did you let me go on," I queried.
"You seemed to be enjoying yourself so much I hadn't the heart to stop you," he laughed.
We hit upon a strategy of offering brief synopses of our lives from childhood to the present searching for the intersection, taking turns at opportune moments in history, occasionally venturing off on interesting tangents. The waiter returned to remove plates and cups, the cafe was filling up, the warming spring air soothing. We ordered wine and narrated our stories, revealing instances, indiscretions and lapses of morals that only men would put forth, bragging of their unsavory exploits, trying to outdo the other in roguishness.
When sudenly, we crossed paths and sat bolt upright staring at one another as though for the first time. That summer in Marseilles. It was a beautiful day, as are most that time of year. I was with a lady friend of brief acquantance. Recklessly, as was our wont, we ventured down to the harbor looking to rent a boat. After a few discussions with skippers we hit upon one taking out a small group of sightseers. We had arrived just in time. Julian was one of the guests, alone and unencombered. We three found ouselves sitting together; he had a bottle of fine bordeaux he wished to share. He boldly flirted with my lady friend, and she reciprocated, leaving me to scenery watch. We were much younger then, in our twenties, handsome and full of ourselves. After returning to port, we went our separate ways, or so I thought. Over some petty disagreement, she and I parted company that very day. Later that evening I saw them together at a bistro near my residence. In my hurt and pride I confronted them, telling her what I thought of her shallowness and he of his knavish deceit. We did not come to blows, but only due to my ouster by the owner.
The freshened memory created a discomfort I could not conceal. The rogue, indeed, I thought. I stared hard at my glass of wine, unable and unwilling to face him any longer. The mystery was solved, but most assuredly not how I'd desired it. I thought he might try to laugh it off good naturedly as men sometimes do in an attempt to put things in a more so-called manly perspective, a mutual understanding realized of life's way when young. But he said nothing, apparently age and the vicissitudes had rendered a less than cavalier appraisal of his past, and particularly of the moment in question. I almost felt sorry for him; he too, I believe, did not want things to take this turn. Conflicted, I chose the coward's way and after sipping wine one more time, cooly bid my farewell and quickly left.
Disgruntled and unhappy, I wondered down by the canal, stopping on the promenade to gander at the many birds floating on the water. I almost laughed at myself, to take such offense at a singular event in my long and self-centered lovelife. I cared not for that woman, I barely remember what she looked like. She was a plaything of the moment, the place, and the time. I walked along the waterway counting birds absently. The morning had warmed considerably, the sun bright after yesterday's clouds. I decided to return to my abode to write in my journal. It gave me peace of mind which, at present, was all I had left.
It was mid-afternoon when I finally cooked a few sausages for lunch, washed down with a glass of beer. They were a favorite of mine -- German -- a secret I kept to myself; it would not go well with the salon crowd to know of such tawdry delights. As I was about to take my nap I was disturbed by an unexpected knock on the door. Ordinarily I recieved no visitors; no one, in fact, ever came to visit unless on official business, an uncommon occurrence. Bracing myself somewhat, I opened the door. There, bold as brass, stood Julian. My look of shocked surprise made him smile.
"I asked the owner of the cafe where you might live, others overheard and between the lot of them I got your address. I hope you don't mind; we really do need to talk, if only for my benefit."
We stood across the threshold for a few seconds as I recalled my cowardice of the morning. "Yes, yes, by all means, come in."
We sat and talked around the issue, which now to me had turned meaningless and absurd. Gathering what moral strength I could muster on such short notice, but not wishing to appear weak or overly solicitous, I apologized, not for my reaction at the cafe, but for allowing something so long in the past and of such insignificant stature to affect me so. At the time, that sounded half-way. Our energies once again resumed where they had disjointedly left off, he continuing on about his subsequent life, and me, mine, embellishing here and there as people tend to do. Still and all, I did not know what to make of him. I'd become somewhat wary of people during these days of my life and rather circumspect when it came to relationships, even ones of such obviously temporary status.
The afternoon waned on. What with the drinking and the talking and the warming day, my tiny apartment grew stuffy. I went to the window with the idea of opening it; it stuck occasionally, actually often, so I had time to peruse the street scene. A man stood by the corner lamppost wearing a long trench coat and a brimmed felt hat. Must be drunk, I thought; it's far too warm for such a get-up. I was about to call Julien's attention to it when the man turned at the sound of my struggling, no doubt, and peered right at me. His eyes were menacing. I stared back; I can't abide such rudeness. Another similarly dressed approached him from across the street; they conferred. Julien distracted me with a sudden burst of laughter in the midst of a story he'd been telling and I returned to my cushioned chair, completely forgetting the men at the corner.
A few minuted passed. On the spur, I rose to retrieve a book; it concerned the geographic area he was presently going on about. I wanted to demonstrate that I was not completely ignorant of that region; men are forever trying to surpass one another, and I can play that game as well as the next. We were getting a bit tipsy at this point and I have to confess I was enjoying myself. Like I said, I had few visitors and so pleasant company, in spite of its questionable beginnings and tattered foundation, had to be savored. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
As I searched my stacks looking for the volume, the door suddenly, and with an extraordinarily loud noise, exploded inward. The two trenchcoated men I spotted at the corner came running in. Julien jumped to his feet, turning in one motion. In an instant the men were on him shouting something in a strange tongue unfamiliar to me despite my wide travels. I was caught breathless. They pulled knives from beneath their coats and instinctively I joined Julien in the wrestling match. It was my home, after all, and no one was going to burst in and attack anyone whether I particularly liked the person very much or not. Honor dictates.
One of them managed to knock me to the floor, he was very strong, or at least, stronger than I. I pushed and pulled, refusing to simply go limp and surrender to whatever was in store for me. Above the din of struggling bodies, glasses breaking, furniture being disturbed, and grunts, I heard what must've been Julien scream in anguish. I observed from the corner of my eye his body slacken into stillness beside me. With renewed vigor I made a last desperate attempt to force my opponent off to the side when his companion lept to the floor above my head and with one quick movement -- slit my throat. I lay there bleeding and dying on my Persian rug as I watched them retrieve a large envelope from the inside pocket of Julien's jacket. Then they were gone, leaving us both for dead.
Ordinarily, that's where this story would end. But such is not the case. The day of my death was only the beginning of a long journey I've been about. For the sake of those who believe in such things, I would like to corroborate the afterlife, reincarnation, alternate dimensions, Valhalla and other mythic and religious destinations for the dead. But I can't; not in good faith. Heaven and hell are not places. What I've discovered is not easily put into words, but I'll try.
The feelings we engulf ourselves in when alive; the thoughts, the sensory experience, the impressions that filter through our being, no longer apply. They become out of reach and meaningless, yet retain a reality. To be replaced by a completely different nature, a nature at once beautiful and tragic. The universe we gazed out on, wondering, feeling separate and daunted, is only a facade, masking a world of ever-expanding domain. And sadly for most, no one is in charge. Our fear of a God vanishes into the thin air it always was. I can choose to be everything that is; or nothing. Here, if here could be localized, we are not limited by humanity. It's all and nothing. We see with eyes not meant to simply aid in our animal survival. We see with eyes that gather-in a deeper meaning to the once merely physical. And yet, we are not disembodied souls wafting along the currents of life, we are not empty.
We miss those we love who have passed on and hope to be with them, somewhere, when we die. And we are, but not in the way we imagined -- confined to walking and talking in some idealized Paradise. All forms are available; Paradise, but one.
But and alas, words alone will not suffice. In fact, in spite of my intention, I believe I may have clouded the waters. Mores the pity.
It's time to return to the One, it's happening -- material form cannot resist refinement to its source; thought alone is not enough to maintain coherence.
But first, please do me this favor if you would: In my apartment you'll find a glass bowl by the kitchen door -- would you feed my cat? His food's in the right-hand cabinet above the sink.