For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Sir challenged me with "You remove your fear of the abyss by spending time looking into it." and I challenged Brad MacDonald with "'A story has no beginning or end.' -Graham Greene"
"They say when you look into the abyss, it looks back into you," I said. I looked at her. She was watching the TV screen above her head. It was something that popped into my head, apropos of nothing, sitting in a hard plastic chair and not reading the book I had brought.
"Who says that?" Her voice was weak, thready, like she had to clear her throat.
"I say that," I said. It was a cheap joke, but I made it anyway.
"No, that's not what I meant. I know you said it. Who said it before you?" She looked annoyed.
"Nobody important." The sun was high in the sky, slanting through the curtains and making patterns on the floor.
"Come on, somebody famous said that. Who was it?"
"Nietzsche. I think." I dimly remembered that from a philosophy class.
"He was an asshole." She said that like she knew him.
"Yes, Nietzsche. You know he was. He was the one philosopher frat boys could get into, because he always said it was OK to do whatever you wanted." There were noises out in the hall, and I looked at the door, thinking someone was about to come in. No one did.
"I think it was a little more complicated than that," I said. I hope she didn't press me, because I don't know how it is more complicated. I was just proud I pulled the name.
"Of course it was! Remember that scene from 'A Fish Called Wanda'? Kevin Kline says he's not an ape because apes don't read philosophy? Then Jamie Lee Curtis says, 'Yes, they do. They just don't understand it.' ? Remember?" She remembered everything.
"Yeah, I remember. Good movie." We used to watch it on videotape, sitting together on the floor, eating homemade bread with imported cheese, laughing at jokes we had already heard a dozen times.
"It was. That's why I say Nietzsche is an asshole, because he's a tool that dumb people use to make excuses for the dumb things they do. He makes dumb people think they sound smart." That seemed unfair, but I let it stand.
"That's not really Nietzsche's fault, though." She hated selfishness, which was what I had always thought Nietzsche boiled down to. But I wasn't totally sure.
"Yeah, but he's dead. I'm sure he doesn't care if I call him an asshole." She said the word dead flatly, like she was tossing a hot dog wrapper into the trash. I winced when she said it.
"What?," she said. She was looking at the four o'clock news, watching the anchor in a purple dress explain how to get 20% off of a manicure.
"I don't like that word."
"Asshole?," she said, smiling.
"No, not that." I looked out the window, watching a truck back up to a loading dock.
"You mean dead?"
"You don't want me to talk about the Grateful Dead? Or 'Dawn of the Dead'? Or the Mexican Day of the Dead?," she said, smirking.
"You're not helping," I said. "But no, no I don't."
"Why? We both know I'm going to die. So are you. So is Dr. Perez, and that cute nurse you keep flirting with."
"I'm not flirting with her." She was tiny, absurdly tiny for an adult. Absolutely professional and smart and calm and very gentle, but just very very small. Shorter than me. I found her charming, but I wouldn't admit it.
"Oh, yes you are," she said triumphantly. "You know you are. You won't admit it. But you are."
I didn't say anything. That was often the best choice.
A busty Latin woman came in, wearing green scrubs and carrying what looked like a small fishing tackle box. "Hi honey," the newcomer said. "Time for some blood!"
"Seriously?," my wife said. She put out her arm. "That's like the seventeenth time today. I swear you're selling it to the blood bank." Always with the quip.
"You're so funny," she said, preparing her tools, the taut elastic, the vials and the stickers to label them.
"One thing about dying," my wife said. "At least I won't have to put up with this crap anymore," she said archly. She could make jokes about anything. She was already asking nurses if they had any single sisters, because, as she put it, "I have to help him pick out his next wife. He can't even pick his own clothes."
The woman in green had a name tag around her neck that said Rosa. "Oh no," she said. "You hurt my feelings when you say that, honey."
"You know I'm kidding, Rosa. It's not your fault." Rosa finished and bandaged the spot.
"You're not going to die, honey."
"Yeah, Rosa, I am. It's OK."
"No," Rosa said, sterner. "I prayed for you last night. You're not going to die, honey. I know it."
"Thank you," she said, and Rosa left without another word.
It was mostly quiet. If you listened, you could hear a phone ring, or an alarm chime. But those noises became part of the background. You mostly didn't hear them.
"I wonder if this woman knows it isn't prom night," she said to the screen. The news anchor was walking across the studio as they prepared to sign off. Her dress did look a little formal for a news anchor, but I supposed she would know better than I would.
"You better go," she told me. "You have to work early tomorrow."
"I know that," I said. I didn't move. I looked down at the library book in my lap. It was about Imperial Japan at the end of the Second World War, when everything started to come apart all at once.
"I'll be fine," she said. "I think I want to close my eyes for a little while."
"You don't need anything else?," I asked.
"No, you got me those magazines," she said, yawning. "I'm good."
I sat there and watched her for a while, ready to be upbraided for not obeying. But she didn't say anything, so I just sat there and listened to her breathe. I remembered something else Nietzsche said, that the living are just a species of the dead. I knew about ashes to ashes and dust to dust, that everyone who had ever lived would die. Babies are just adults to be, and living people are just corpses to be.
There was a difference, though, between knowing something was true, and really feeling it, knowing it all the way to your core. That was what I did when I thought about death-I knew it without knowing it. I read my Vonnegut, and my hyper smart science fiction stories about the perils of living forever, and I knew that human life was just an eyeblink in the lifespan of the universe. But something deep inside me made me feel like these rules didn't apply to me, that I was special. I watched her breathe, long after she fell asleep, listening to the tinny audio from the TV tell about catastrophe and war and sadness. I watched, and I wished and prayed for a reprieve that I knew would never come, until the sun finally set and I got up and went home to an empty house.