7 min read

If I Must Die

Then Someone is gone; a cog slipping not so discreetly out of the human machine.

If I must die, I will encounter darkness as a bride, and hug it in mine arms.

And so there you will find me: teetering on the precipice of life and death, light and darkness. From up here, I can see the entire city the way it always saw me – blurry and out of focus, like God didn’t bother with its finer features. But neon still stings cataracts.

Dear Death,
Catch me if you can.

A gust of wind tightens the knot in my stomach as I sway. The bottle slips from my hand and spirals below. I’m too far up to hear it smash on the pavement.

How did I get here?

It’s 1982. Blinding light roars through the end of the tunnel. Not a metaphor, but a train. The platform is packed with lifeless people, dead eyes and grey faces. They emanate violent shades of mediocracy and dissatisfaction, and it is the most depressing thing I have seen since television footage of the Vietnam War. But this is a different kind of massacre.

The blaring horn calls our attention to the oncoming train. People spur into motion, shuffling forward. Someone moves quicker.

It is one of those moments – a blink of the eye that lasts a thousand years. The sudden sprint. The collective gasp. The screech of desperate brakes against metal tracks. The thud.

And then Someone is gone, from the platform, from the world, a cog slipping not so discreetly out of the human machine. Like a leap for freedom across the River Styx. Someone, whose name the seven o’clock news tells me is James Radford, is emancipated.

There is someone whose job it is to paint the faces of the dead. Dressing them up for the afterlife, cleaning their wounds to avoid the traumatisation of family and friends at an open casket. Colour to their cheeks, an outline of their eyes and lips. Nip and tuck, here and there. My mother was the most beautiful she had ever been at her own funeral. Funny. Humans invest so much time and money in their own living beauty, but once they die they are doctored like a spoiled photograph, and their legacy is always the most beautiful thing of all.

Call no man happy until he is dead. The last chorus of Oedipus. Because death is to life what love is to a Shakespearean comedy; a happy resolution.

I will encounter darkness as my bride.

I lose my virginity in 1990 in the back room of a Blockbuster store. It goes for less than a minute, and when it’s done, Lydia Mackintosh pulls up her underwear, straightens out her skirt, and walks straight out. So this is what manhood feels like, I think.

When I’m decent, I go back into the front of the store and try to catch Lydia’s glance, but she is too busy cleaning a mark on the counter to look at me, and there is something in her eye that makes it look like she is crying. We don’t speak.

My sexual awakening is a stand-alone event. I read Greek myths and watch erotic films I rent for free from Blockbuster, and the combination of my pastime indulgences means that I am aroused by Persephone. She is the perfect woman, so of course she didn’t belong here, amongst the dictatorships, atomic bombs and arms races of the mortal world. At night I am dead and she is my reaper. My dark bride, my Lydia.

I start taking medication. They say I am not quite right.

Lydia Mackintosh falls pregnant the year the internet reaches our house. I know because I helped my father install our computer, and then when I realised we needed screws for the table, I go to the supermarket and run into Lydia Mackintosh’s enormous stomach in the frozen food aisle.
‘My eyes are up here.’

Horror lodges itself in my throat, and I gesture towards myself. ‘Is it…?’

She pulls a face. ‘No, you asshole.’

I smile to myself as she waddles away. Every woman I meet is another bullet dodged. My lips and legs are sealed in darkness, and only Death will give them light.

I was a twin once. A coalition of cells in the womb with two hearts, but only one was beating. Not many people can say that they lay pressed to a corpse for nine months. In that way, darkness has permeated every blip along my timeline. They say when you find your soulmate you realise there were signs all along. There is providence, even in the fall of a sparrow. So I know where I came from, and I know where I am headed. At the end, my love will greet me with open arms and I will let her. My own Shakespearean love story. The happiest of tragedies.

So, my twin died, then James Radford, and then my mother. I marked the deaths on a tally like points in a sports game and crossed my fingers for my turn off the bench.

In 1999, the year before the end of the world, I was the only survivor in a car crash. Death was teasing me. A taste, a flick of the tongue, but no more. Death taught me how to flirt.

The year 2000 came and went, and the world went on turning. The next year, New York had its micro-apocalypse. I upped the dosage on my medication and tried to force my way into Death’s arms by taking one too many – but the wretched hospital system was too strong, and I was wired up to life support for three weeks after that. They thought I was manic and depressed. Funny how the world doesn’t seem to give a damn about you until you try to die.

I start writing love letters.

Dear Death,
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more temperate and lovely. More dark and infinite. You bring with you grace and love and the promise of eternity. You are enigmatic and beautiful. For Death by any other name would smell as sweet.

And the green glass bottles piled up by the door, and I made carpets out of squashed beer cans.

But how did I get here?

Lady Fortune throws a Gatsby-esque party in the penthouse of a Manhattan apartment on Capulet Crescent in 2012. Her guests wear masks and drink cocktails. It is an exclusive Upper East Side event, but I slip my way in with Mercutio by my side, and we shield our identities with false accents and stories of privilege. All these people want is a validation of their own inflated existence, and when we provide that, they will embrace us like old friends.

I am feigning my way through a discussion about Wall Street when I feel it. A tickle, just above the collar, just below the chin. Like a fingernail, teasing its way across my Adam’s apple. It pricks like a thorn. I freeze. Oh, dear saint, let lips do what hands do. A murmur. A brush of tongue. A kiss. And then the lights begin to fade.

The music stings my ears. Simon and Garfunkel. Hello darkness, my old friend.

How fitting.

So I take her invisible hand and allow myself to be led blindly through the crowd. Of course, nobody notices. I am just an atom, a conscious cell amidst this corrupted sea of hedonism. I will die as I lived: unknown, unloved. Forgotten.

Darkness leads me out the window and onto the fire escape. This is the penthouse, so we only need to move one flight of stairs upwards, and then suddenly we are looking out over the city. She wraps her arms around my waist from behind, and I feel her cold breath in my ear.

Have from my lips the sin that they have took.

It is intoxicating. I almost fall, but catch myself. Not yet. The city is a blurry mass of pulsing life, and neon still stings cataracts. I blink. I inhale. I take in this moment – my last breath of this life, of this world. Death hugs me tighter from behind. I drop my bottle.

And so there you will find me: teetering on the precipice of life and death, light and darkness. Darkness, because she is enveloping me, pressing herself against me until her eyes and lips are mine, and we are one and the same. Light, because I can see it now.

The light at the end of the tunnel. Not a train, but a metaphor.