I Am Enveloped
THE beeping keeps me awake, but I don’t mind. Metronomes relax me now. For a long time, I couldn’t tolerate repetitive sounds: toe-tapping, the ticking of clocks, even too-long choruses. “Hey Jude” is my enemy. Come to the point already.
Mabel’s asleep in a chair, her soft snores a different kind of comfort. She’s a good daughter. She wasn’t always. In her teens and again in her 30s, she made too many bad decisions, dated the wrong kinds of people. I don’t necessarily like her wife, but she treats Mabel well and that’s all I can ask for.
I sit and yawn. For the first time in months, I feel refreshed. I do the same body check that I started decades ago, when I first noticed a hurt that hadn’t been there the night before. I wiggle my toes, tense my calf and thigh, roll my neck. I expect quiet pain, part of me for so long that I think of it as a silent partner, holding me accountable.
When I realize I feel no pain, I grin and swing my legs over the hospital bed. Is this what it was like when I was nineteen? To have an ease with a body?
I carefully remove the IV and adjust the machines so they won’t indicate I’m flatlining when I remove the different apparatus from my chest and arm. I’m thankful I don’t have a tube up my nose anymore. All the little violations of my space add up.
In the hallway, the linoleum is cold and the walls a dull blue. I suppose it’s pleasant, but couldn’t the lights be less harsh? A clock on a near wall tells me I’m in the deepest part of night. My favorite time.
I shuffle along, passing the empty nurse’s station and a dozen closed doors. It’s quiet, but never void of sound. There’s always a mechanical burp or distant ringing. I go down some stairs, breathing the mild stink of abandoned sandwich crusts and years of sweat and savoring it because at least it’s something new.
Outside the stairwell, a floor down, I hear laughter coming from the door in front of me. I knock. “Hello?” I say quietly, my voice harsh and split. I haven’t had a cigarette since the diagnosis, but my throat doesn’t realize, filled as it is with scar tissue. To be honest, I miss it. At this point, would a couple drags even hurt? Mabel insisted I quit, so fine.
There’s two children sitting at the edge of a bed, holding game controllers. The girl is thin, small. The boy is bigger, not so far into his chemo. Early teenagers, fourteen or fifteen. Hard to say. Their eyes are wide, obviously startled. I stay where I am and hold up a hand. “Sorry to disturb you. I’m a neighbor.” I point up and smile. It takes a second, but the girl nods and waves. “Can I come in?”
“I guess,” the girls says, shrugging. “You’re not weird, are you?”
The room is identical to mine, a typical hospital room. The walls are brighter than mine, a gentle mauve. I assume game systems are more common in children wards.
Pulling up a chair to the bed with some effort, I laugh. “I don’t think I’m weird. At least not in a creepy way, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Wouldn’t someone creepy say that?” Her eyes narrow to slices.
“I guess so.” I chew my lip. “I can go if you’d like.”
She sighs. “It’s ok I guess.”
“Do you want to play?” the boy asks. He offers the controller.
The wall-mounted TV shows two celestial creatures frozen in mid-leap. They’re made of fractured stardust, all points and bright cascades. I don’t recognize the game but when the girl unpauses, I press buttons until I get the gist. We hop platforms and cross chasms together, eat plant monsters like a Thanksgiving dinner, try to save a universe. The plot seems incidental. Some of my friends in the retirement home have gaming parties. Mostly the oldies: Mario and Tetris and those.
“You’re pretty good,” the girl, Clea, tells me after we play for a half hour. “Pop-Pop has no idea about video games.”
“Call me Jacob.”
They introduce themselves. “My grandfather doesn’t play either,” Liam says. “My granny plays sometimes, though.”
Eventually I die, and Liam takes over and I see how much I’d been holding Clea back in her progression. They fly through the levels: desert and tundra and a sky castle. Their star-avatars grow and develop, evolving with experience.
Clea offers me the controller again and I shake my head. “Did you two meet here?” I ask.
“We met over at St. Agnes, actually,” Liam says. “We were both on the long-term ward a couple years ago.”
“It was nice to see him here,” Clea says. “Everyone else is old as fuck. No offense.”
I wave my hands. It’s true. I am old as fuck.
“How long have you been here?” Clea asks. The question makes her sit up straight and she looks nervous, like she’s about to be reprimanded. Maybe the question is verboten? I’m not sure.
“Awhile,” I say. “I’m supposed to go home in a few days.”
“That’s cool. I’m theoretically in remission. Him too.” She jerks her thumb at Liam, who nods.
“We’re all lucky,” I say. “That’s good isn’t it?”
Liam nods, his straight hair flopping in the moonlight that streams through the large window. “What do you think it’s like?” he asks. “To not be lucky?”
It’s an offhanded question that catches me entirely by surprise. To address the death elephant in the room so casually. When I was their age, I never thought about it at all. I just thought about girls and running and part-time jobs and playing games and school.
“Jesus, Li,” Clea says. “Keeping it light, huh?”
“Sorry. I just thought he might have an idea.”
“Because I’m old?” I ask, hiding my smile.
The boy flushes, but doesn’t apologize, or mince words. “Basically, yeah.”
I think and watch them. They’ve clearly played before and now they fight giant monsters, statues come to life, beasts with fangs and claws for days. Their fingers are nimble and deft and they help one other, murmuring suggestions or even backing one another up without words, breathing fire and sprouting wings and digging holes to cushion their falls.
When I was a boy, if I thought of death at all, I thought of Jesus taking me into his bosom. I dreamed of winged, long-haired angels playing harps on clouds, just like the clichés. When I got older, I thought death was nothing at all, an erasure. After children, I prayed for the return of my belief and it came, but differently and I never could buy the idea of eternal pleasure or punishment. Doesn’t seem logical.
I would have thought that after years of sickness, I’d have come to some kind of conclusion. But no.
When Clea pokes me, I realize that I haven’t said anything in several minutes. I shake my head and dispel the fog. “I don’t know,” I say. “I think maybe it’s like going home again.”
“Where’s that?” Clea asked, looking for my eyes to stare into. The game is paused and Liam’s head is down, his shoulders tense. They think about this a lot.
“The universe, I guess. We’re all atoms from the same stars, right? Nothing is ever destroyed, just changed. So why shouldn’t we change too?”
Clea’s brows furrow and Liam’s head almost imperceptibly moves from side to side and I know this answer doesn’t satisfy them. Why would it? Why should it? Would anything?
Suddenly, I a wave of exhaustion rushes over me. I feel my brief burst of energy drain away. I already miss it. Youth is so far away, and experiencing its facsimile is so welcome.
“I think it’s time for me to go,” I say. I stand and sway a little. I thank them for letting me share their time, my breath coming in little hitches. I hide it with a cough.
“It’s cool,” Liam says. He shakes my hand.
Clea purses her lips and says, “It was nice talking with you, and don’t take this the wrong way, but I hope I don’t see you later, you know?”
I grasp her shoulder, “I hope the same.”
As I walk back to my room, my eyes heavy with sleep, aches and throbs begin to come back to my body in slow creeps, I hear my name. I turn and they’re standing there and they say, “Would you mind if we asked for a hug?”
“Hell no,” I say and for a moment, I am enveloped.
Back in my room, I tiptoe in the darkness and make my way to my bed. I am so tired I can barely think straight. At one point, I kick Mabel’s shoes and they skitter along the floor.
Over in the corner, she stirs. “Dad?” she mumbles.
“I’m fine, Mebby. Go back to sleep.”
“Ok daddy,” she says and pulls the blanket under her neck. “I didn’t break anything, you know.”
I wonder what she’s dreaming. She hadn’t been a rambunctious child, though as I reinsert the IV into my vein with a wince and swing my feet from the floor, I chuckle, remembering the time she destroyed the entire back porch with a single unfortunate swing of a baseball bat.
Even at the time, I’d thought it was kind of funny. The tumbling, the roar, the release of dust and debris. How the umbrella had flown in a neat arc, landing in the back yard amongst the tulips like a javelin. Her open jaw, the flush spreading in his cheeks, the slow turn to me where I held the baseball.
“Dad?” she’d started.
“Wow. Don’t even worry about it.”
Her mother had been less amused, of course. But that was a different story.
I lay back on my pillow and yawn. I can’t keep my eyes open and I don’t bother fighting. I feel a soft heat spreading and my limbs get heavy, like gravity is a hand holding my wrists. It’s a caress and I ignore the pain bursting, because the hand strokes my head and whispers comfort. Here we go.
As I die, I step from my body, a loose spirit. I and the machines that were monitoring my life. My essence expands and envelops the bed, and touches Mabel and encompass her and I am part of her, experiencing her life. I feel her love for her wife and children and a bruised sort of love deep affection and healed-over scars for me. I feels the same for my own parents and within me, I feel traces of them too, and the painful memories of theirs and the love underneath and I know that I can go deeper and deeper.
Instead, I let myself grow through the hospital floor and all those sleeping bodies until I find Clea and Liam. They’re peaceful and happy and enjoy their nearness. They know that once they leave, they won’t see one another again because theirs is a friendship of proximity and specifically shared experience. But they they’ll keep each other in their hearts.
No one can ask for more than to be carried on in someone’s memory.
I grow past the ceiling and through the floorboards and walls and the roof.
I see the flat tar roofs of all the buildings. The treetops are wide and lush with green with the growing day. When my head touches the clouds, I turn my attention to the distant sky, the bright spear of the sun and the endless fountain of blue pouri from the horizon. My body-soul is as large as the county, a mountain range, an inland sea.
I escape the atmosphere and embraced the earth. My back is cold against space and the ball within my arms emanates the warmth of billions, of power lines and siroccos, of ocean currents teeming with life and the churning mantle. I let go.
My growth is exponential, impossible to calculate without sines and π. I encompass the whirling storm of Jupiter and all the moons of Saturn. I face the distant pinprick of light that is the sun and somewhere in all that space, I still feel my body, my bones and flesh and toes and teeth, all connected to the finest thread that I can sever with a tug. My soul will soar through the cosmos and end where it ends, if I just pull.
I pause and a single memory comes through. I’m a boy, lying in the grass of a baseball field. In the background, I hear my mother and father. I don’t understand the words, but I feel a safety that only comes from being within reach of love. The sun is warm, the wind is cool, the grass sharp on my cheek. I’ll take that one with me.
Sighing, I pull and the thread snaps and I’m loose in the universe, rushing to what comes next.
Michael B. Tager is a Baltimore-based editor and writer. He is the Managing Editor of Mason Jar Press, an independent publisher of high-quality books. Publications include jmww, Uncharted Mag, Necessary Fiction, and Barrelhouse, among others. He is uncomfortable but not worried.