“I don’t usually do this.” The hotel corridor seems impossibly long, and their progress down it improbably quiet.
“Well, that’s what Las Vegas is for, isn’t it?” She’s walking unsteadily on her heels now. Lateness, alcohol, the bizarre squishiness of the carpeted hallway. She puts an arm around his neck, mostly for support, but he turns into her, and the shift in balance presses her against the wall, and he’s kissing her again. It’s been years since a woman kissed him like this.
“I guess so.” His voice is a wet rumble in the back of his throat. He runs his hand up the curve of her slim hip, the thin, tight fabric of her dress warm under his fingers. His hand slides to her back and caresses her shoulder blade, then follows the line of her bra around to cup her breast. He whispers between kisses, speaking directly into her mouth. “You’re really not married?”
She laughs, a nearly silent exhalation back into his mouth. “That’s, like, the third time you’ve asked me that,” she says, her southern drawl possibly the sexiest thing he’s ever heard. Literally intoxicating. He’s kissing her neck now, lost in the smell and taste and texture of her, and her fingers curl into his belt, as though to prevent him from running, to keep him pressed to her body. “You are the most gallant gentleman to ever hit on me in a tacky hotel nightclub.”
“I try,” he says, unable to believe how attractive she is, that she’s here with him. This is not his life. His life is a gold ring, jangling against the change in his pocket. He can barely remember what he said to her in the club, how he convinced her to peel away from her girlfriends to stroll through the casino. Maybe it had been winning $500 at roulette, choosing the numbers together and sharing the payout. The exuberance of winning, the magnetism of being a winner.
She peers into her tiny black handbag like she’s looking into some vast abyss, reaches in and hands him the key to her room. It’s the exact shape of a Visa card, which you use to get something now that you’ll have to pay for later. He inserts the card into the slot above the doorknob. The little red light stays red. She is leaning lightly against the wall, thin bare legs atop the precarious heels, short skirt of the dress—British racing green, setting off a tumble of red hair—bunching a little at her hips.
It had started with small talk, his business convention, her vacation. His software marketing job, hers as a project manager for … something solar, or ecological. In Atlanta. From there … the first kiss had come after the third drink. Clearly there was some causality there. Her lips had tasted like strawberries, her breath warm with tequila.
He pulls the key out, shoves it in. Red light. He does it again, slowly, firmly. Green. He turns the knob and pushes the door. It opens on darkness, on cool, conditioned air with the floral and chemical scent of a woman’s shampoos and lotions and perfumes. He gestures with the gallantry that is apparently his undeserved trademark and she kisses him on the cheek, lips lingering there as her body slides around him and into the doorway. She walks into the darkness but doesn’t turn on the light. She simply vanishes into the room.
He stands there a moment, hesitating. She does not call out for him to come inside, just as she didn’t ask him whether he was single, too.
Pave the road to Hell with whatever you like, but its mouth has teeth made of only those lies told by lovers, the cruel deceptions later discovered, because no pain is sharper. These teeth do not rend flesh because, by and large, those who reach the underworld have left flesh far behind. Faith is what’s torn away at the gate of Hell, faith and its quieter twin, hope.
The various underkingdoms have had their various guardians. Boatsmen and impossible dogs, a giantess guarding a gold-roofed bridge, or seven grim, greedy gatesmen. As you enter Hell, whoever you are, someone you loved will be there to welcome you. It will be the one person who you hadn’t yet hurt, the one you could still count on, and he or she will curl a lip back over teeth a little sharper than you remember and tell you that you’ve finally gotten what you deserve. If you have no one left to still love you, perhaps it’ll be the person whose forgiveness you have most longed for, and you’ll see that forgiveness is a fiction.
You will never see that person again, will never know whether she was a figment or, in fact, shares your torment somewhere in the immeasurable ocean of pain you’re about to plunge into. But you’ll never forget that moment, and never stop wondering.
There’s no way to escape, but once those teeth have chewed into you, you won’t want to. Despair has nowhere to run.
If you do find yourself tempted to flee, to fight, even after passing through that razor-sharp gate, then here is my one bit of advice to you: Do not struggle. Somehow you have made it through with some shred of hope, of faith, of dignity still remaining. It happens, sometimes. Do not run or beg for mercy. (Disconsolate weeping is acceptable, and somewhat expected.) Do not raise your head. Don’t reveal that last bit of ephemeral contraband. Hold it and hide it. Cherish the faint, warming light of it while you may, because you won’t have it much longer, and the night here is literally endless.
I like my new clothes. I have a T-shirt with Batman on it, and a new jacket that’s blue and a little too big for me, and new jeans that my mom folded at the cuffs, ’til I grow into them. I sit in the back seat on the way, and I don’t have to sit in the car seat anymore, which is great, but mom still says I have to sit in the back. She says the airbag could snap my neck like a twig. If I made cars, I wouldn’t put in airbags like that. I’d put in something like pillows, the feather kind, which are totally soft and won’t break your neck even when your older brother hits you with one totally hard enough to knock you down and make you cry because you’re only four, which is how old I was last year.
At breakfast, mom was talking and talking and talking about all the fun I’m going to have. Games and other kids and everything. She’s been doing that for months, and I’ve started to think it means there’s something bad going to happen, because when my dad left, both of them talked about how everything would be okay, great, because me and Ryan would have two homes now, and we’d get to go to dad’s sometimes and mom’s most of the time, and it’d always be like a new adventure, only it’s not, and it’s kind of sad. So all through my Lucky Charms—a treat for my first day, no Organic Soy-O’s today—I had this inarticulable sense of dread. (Dread is not a word in a five-year-old’s vocabulary, but it’s a feeling as immediately recognizable as the creak of the closet door in the middle of the night.)
It’s still with me as we drive. In an attempt to name it, I’ve started looking for the hidden trap in all my mom’s encouragement. What if I don’t know how to play the games there? They’ll teach me, she says. But what if I don’t like the other kids? I ask. What if they don’t like me? She says it’ll be just like preschool, but it won’t. Preschool was a different place with different kids—some of the same kids from preschool will be here, she says, but I know most of them went to a different school, a private one that’s expensive. She deflects everything with her assured It’ll be fine, which I’ve learned is as often a prayer as a statement of fact.
When we get there, we walk across a campus swarming with bigger kids. They look dangerous. Not because they take any notice of me, holding mom’s hand. But they run, and they shove, and they fall, and it’s too fast and too wild, like I’m walking onto a freeway. You could get hurt just from not being noticed.
The kindergarten class has its own area, a fence as tall as me around a little rectangular building and a square yard with a sandbox and a tree and an old log that some kids are jumping off of. Everyone’s running around, or playing in tight groups, and you can see a lot of these kids know each other already.
“You want to go and play?” she asks, holding my hand at the gate in the little fence.
“Not yet,” I say. And it’s not until a strange boy with wild curly hair and a bright orange SpongeBob shirt runs up and asks if I want to play robots that I slip away from her fingers and walk stiffly, mechanically, through the gate.
Michelle needs to drink two cases of wine before she dies. Twenty-four bottles in two cardboard winery boxes at the bottom of her cupboard represent her “wine cellar,” and if she’s going to kill herself—and she’s pretty sure, finally, that she will—then she’s got to get through the wine first.
None of the bottles are especially expensive, nor have they been flawlessly stored. Her apartment is pretty cold in the winter and through much of the Bay Area summer, but in spring and, particularly, autumn, it gets hot, and she doubts that even the back of the cupboard is quite cool enough to properly mature a wine. But then, she hasn’t properly matured a life, either, and the answer to both problems is to pop the cork ahead of schedule.
Suicide had always been an abstraction. An option that you never wanted to use, but were glad to have there, like the airplane cushion that can be used as a flotation device. Only in reverse—allowing you to float away from the wreckage of life, rather than death.
“Metaphors are like a second skin to me,” she says, staring at a bottle of RedHead Ranch 2003 Pinot Noir. She bought it at the winery three years ago for something like twenty-five bucks, with the idea that if she opened it in a decade or so, it’d taste like fifty.
Her reasons to die can be summed up in a single word: Despair. Or ennui, if despair is too intense. It has been five years since she realized she hated her job and could not envision a career path that would secure her even a functionally impoverished old age without sucking out the last vestiges of the soul she doesn’t even technically believe in. Three years since she had a relationship with a man that lasted more than four dates. Nearly two since she got laid off, which admittedly had solved the immediate problem about hating her job.
Her reasons to live can be readily headlined Guilt. It would hurt her parents and her friends. And Julie, her sister, whose two kids adore their aunt. “Aunt Michelle” is the only adult they know who still acts like a kid, and they always want to know when she’ll visit next. If she had to pick one reason that was keeping her alive, it was that she didn’t want Julie having to explain suicide to those kids. But Tara and Sean won’t be young forever, and Michelle has always viewed suicide as something she’d undertake when all other plausible options ran out.
But you know what? Fuck it. At a certain point, the fear of disappointing others is outweighed by the disappointment in yourself. She knows she’s got options—she’s not poor, she’s not uneducated, she’s not in chronic pain or handicapped in a way that makes basic survival a challenge. She has little to complain of, all things considered. But she also has, almost literally, no will to live.
But before she goes, she’s going to read a few great books that she had always wanted to get to, and reread a few beloved ones. And she’s going to start drinking the wine, stop saving it for special occasions that don’t come. When the wine’s gone, when the books have been read and a few movies seen, when this checklist of small pleasures is completed, then it will be time.
The bottle sits in front of her, empty glass—metaphor!—beside it, the bright red label mocking her. But that’s not true. The universe is insensate and indifferent, just like the bottle. It does not care what she does, or doesn’t do. Life is a set of physical laws that carry out operations. If she jumps off a roof, which is not the way she’d do it, too messy, too much chance for sudden regret, then gravity will do its job without interest. You start a process, and it continues to its conclusion. It’s that simple.
She walks away from the table, rummaging through a drawer to find the corkscrew.
She is sure the spiders were not real. Silvery-black bodies, like oil slicks, like dark drops of mercury, pouring through the hole in the universe and darting across the floor. They congealed from nothing, settling into a lower state like steam turning to hailstones. She saw thousands of them, millions, bleeding from nowhere and covering the floor of the vast underground chamber. They can’t have been there.
They reappear in too-frequent nightmares, even three years later. She wakes up in darkness, sweating, straightjacketed in twisted sheets. She no longer cries when the dreams, the memories, spit her back into her bed. It’s happened too many times.
Why was she there? Videotaping, an urban-travel clip for a since-failed web-TV channel … was that really her life? Touring dusty catacombs and immaculate underground flood chambers, counting hits and retweets? It seems like someone else’s life, a parallel universe to her drab, ingrown present.
The men shouldn’t have been there. She sees them chanting in their lab coats, eyes closed, intoning, as their cobbled-together, wire-tangled machines hum. The power lines, snaking from the gas-stinking generators, never touch the floor. Little metal frames, like tiny laundry racks, are set up at three-foot intervals to keep power cords out of the puddles in their makeshift temple—the famous, architecturally magnificent storm drains under greater Tokyo. Four-story columns holding up Saitama, awaiting a biblical deluge. Her video crew, her delicate bubble of Internet celebrity. She’s having the time of her life. It’s like a dream. The kind of dream she used to have.
Her actual memories of the event are uncertain, variable; they go nonlinear at points, and contradictions overlap. The reality had outstripped her five simple senses, her suddenly quaint concept of space and time. The overload forces weird improvisations in her mind, an attempt to create sense where there was none.
She always feels the spiders. In the nightmares they crawl, again, into her boots and up her thighs. She screams—she read once that you can’t scream in a dream, but she does—and feels them on her tongue, in her mouth, forcing their way down her throat, the scream choking, the hum of a million tiny, mechanical voices filling her brain, which insists it’s not real, none of it’s real.
Above the murmur of the chanting techno-priests, the baritone buzz of Buddhist monks, their machines pulse, droning energy waves, like sound effects from a ’50s sci-fi thriller. They make her dizzy, sound waves unbalancing her inner ear, or electromagnetic pulses shorting out synapses. Space itself turns hostile, warped, as it tears open and something stares out at her.
Sometimes she dreams she’s one of those dead-eyed men. Sometimes she’s all the not-spiders at once, a single mind, a repeating program. Every time, the dream builds until the arrival, until the great entities gaze through the throbbing, luminous portal. They’re large, beyond the scale of even this vast storm-drain cathedral. They’re made of light, in colors that don’t fit on the spectrum, shapes as fluid as thought. However she’s dreaming it, the horror doesn’t truly take her until she turns her attention to them. At that moment, everything drops away and she is very small. She is a sinner in the eyes of God, a saint inside the gates of Hell. A single oscillating photon in the howling emptiness of space.
In the claustrophobic confines of the too-small apartment she rarely leaves now, she feels safe. She doesn’t mind that her front door opens onto a larger world that she no longer believes is the real world at all. That’s not the doorway that terrifies her.
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