As a child, I was a good swimmer. At every opportunity, I would dive into the pool and stay for as long as my grandparents — and it was almost always my grandparents — would let me. “You’re like a fish!” they would say, and I would take great pride in that, and thought often of my friends’ daily practices with the swim team. Being a quiet, literary child of an overly-involved mother, though, resulted in a lot of quiet days alone. This became our family’s status-quo, as I was either too content or too shy to bring my frustration with the lack of a social outlet up to my single, somewhat domineering, mother.
As I grew older and more social, I was eventually able to convince my mother to let me join the swim team, as long as I was able to convince my father to pay for it. This was common, so my request was met with a familiar sigh and an “Of course, son. How much?”.
I hated asking him for things. Talk of money always made me uncomfortable.
This sense of guilt was only exacerbated by the fact that I was placed in the lowest class, along with the younger sisters and brothers of the peers I had hoped to spend time with. After a season of humiliation I left the sport, hoping to put the experience behind me.
It’s funny how these things follow us.
In May, many years later, I stood on a rocky shoreline and looked across the vast expanse of the Pacific. I would die here, also in the month of May, but not this one. I still had much to do, although I wasn’t entirely sure what. Life had been fine enough to me up to that point, but a flame of some kind had been snuffed out — I couldn’t, and can’t, pin down exactly when, but somewhere along the way I had lost my ability to see the bright colors of the world and gained a rope affixed to my chest, applying a constant, but not insurmountable, pull towards this place.
To be clear, I was not a sad person. In fact, I would consider myself quite happy. Just unfulfilled.
I met a girl in late August of the year before, and fell in love with her in September. There was a distinctly morose nature to her, but not at all in a way that seeped into her interactions. It was easy for me to see that there was pain there, as there was for me, but where I had become unfalteringly optimistic to cope, she maintained an edgy sarcasm that I found infinitely charming. This showed through in a number of ways that were both frustrating and exhilarating. Her absolute confidence in what she said meant that, while we often disagreed, conversation was always easy to have. She may have disregarded my hobbies and passions as silly or inconsequential, but she continued to show me a love that, for some time, was the most profound relationship I had been a part of.
We were taking an aimless walk around the city, as we often did, engaging in light small talk. The city was still largely unfamiliar to us at this time, and the conversation had pulled my attention away from our environment.
“Look.” She said as she stopped.
I followed her gaze and saw that we were on the edge of a park. The park, which was still recovering from a dry summer, had turned a shade of gold that could only be found on the evenings which were not quite summer, not quite autumn. Having begun its descent into the horizon, the sun cast a fiery glow across the sky.
At that point I hadn’t yet told her how I felt, but she solved that problem by grabbing my hand. She pulled me to a small grass-covered peninsula jutting into the pond, and watched the sun set. I watched the geese swim across the still surface of the water.
“Shoe’s untied.” She said, pointing to my busted leather boots.
“Oh, thanks.” She must have been looking at me as I watched the birds.
I stood up and kissed her, and she was someone else. Her body, which always felt so cold to me, softened against my touch as though I was relieving her of some invisible weight. Her hand came up to meet mine on her neck.
They say that the eyes hold the soul (or some similar platitude), but what I noticed most in her then was her lips. Although I had been spending almost every day with this woman for several weeks, I realized then that this was the first time I had seen her smile. Her lips slid past her teeth, revealing piano keys. Her smile showed in her entire face, and the transformation of her already-attractive features left me teary-eyed.
I last saw that smile in December of that year, and that was what I thought of as I stood on that shoreline in May. I thought, too, of her delicately perfumed scent.
Scent, being the sense most directly tied with memory, is perhaps the most important piece of a moment, and tells us far more than appearance ever could. A scent, whether objectively good or bad, has a million subjective things to say. Chlorine developed in me a sense of anxiety. Petrichor one of homesickness. Her hair one of longing nostalgia. It’s fascinating, then, that we evolved to have a much-dulled sense of smell — in animals, the art of scent is appreciated to its full extent. Where shadows of memories are evoked in you or I, complex messages are conveyed within insects. In the world of sharks, the sense of smell trumps even eyesight.
That girl that I had fallen in love with, I now knew, had met a man when she joined the Peace Corps two years, three months, and nine days after she last smiled at me. From what she tells me, she fell deeply in love with him after they met, and although there were troubles in the first few years after leaving the Corps, they had a fleshy-faced little girl and got married in the snow. Turbulence was something taken for granted in her life, but her marriage stayed afloat regardless. Her husband, a man with a refined sense of humor and unusually large ears, was kind, self-sacrificing, and patient in a way that I never could have been. She tells me that he had wanted to be a global health advocate, but put that dream aside when their daughter was born.
Could I have done that?
When I died, their daughter was twenty-eight and did not know who I was. Her mother, who I still longed for in some way, had not thought of me for nine months. I had married, too, but my wife’s scent never caught me by the throat in the same way as my September love. We had no fleshy-faced children. We did not marry in the snow. I met her on a beach three Julys after September had married.
July was a good, Christian woman — truly exactly what my mother wanted for me. She was, though, very pretty, and very much in love with me. She loved me more than September ever did, and I loved her back. Even with my reservations, I feel we enjoyed a life of productivity together, and I am sure she was shattered when I floated away. If I was able to see her now, I would apologize for taking the eternal love she desired away from her. If the universe is kind, she found another man, more appreciative than I, to love. I’d rather not find out — I was too selfish to die alone, but for us, my death truly was the point at which we parted ways.
I had no way of knowing that death was actually quite a loud, celebratory affair. As I floated away, the crashing of waves turned to a roaring crowd, and my still arms began to move.
I was swimming.
The movement of the ocean subsided, and as I went up for a breath, I was hit by chlorine. I reached for the blue-tiled wall in front of me and sputtered as I tried to leave the water, and a pair of warm hands grabbed me by my arms. Like a child from the womb, I was thrust into the cold light of the world again, and a roaring crowd surrounded my young, shivering body.
Life after death isn’t so bad. As people come to meet you, you get to see glimpses of their lives that you were never aware of, and then you reminisce and introduce them to eternity. Some are quite pleased with themselves and ask to meet god, while others are displeased that the universe had the audacity to prove them wrong. As we stroll away from their point of entry these sulky and self-righteous feelings tend to subside. While nobody knows if there’s a god, knowing that there is no apparent end to undeath is enough to please most. Everyone, it turns out, was quite wrong.