I’ve died once before and it was nothing like this.
Three weeks before I was supposed to move to San Francisco, I collapsed. I’d been walking down Lentrum Street, on my way to my girlfriend’s house, when all of a sudden I was sprawled out on the sidewalk. I don’t remember what happened after that, but Daleigh tells the story to every new person we meet.
At that point, we were only strangers. She, coincidentally, had been heading to her fiancé’s apartment when she spied a twitching body on the pavement. She says she was shocked – I mean, who wouldn’t be? It’s the body of a stranger – a man in a beige corduroy jacket who apparently liked loud floral-print button ups and having his shoelaces undone. That’s all she knew about me and yet she still stopped and saved my life.
I sometimes joke that I only keep her around in case my heart stops again. She says I make her heart stop for a beat or two every time I kiss her. Then she tilts her chin down and smiles at me. I’ve never seen anyone else smile that way. I love it.
Her fiancé at the time was a doctor and she’d watched him work while they were first dating. It was his way of impressing her, but she always thought it just looked methodical. Still, she would fling her arms around his neck and tell him how brave he was after every shift. She soon found out that although there might have been a method for saving lives, if you don’t know how to do it, it’s harder than you’d think.
She tried holding onto my limp wrist, searching for a pulse. There was none.
She leaned in to see if my chest was rising and falling with my breathing. It wasn’t.
It’s a good thing he was the doctor instead of Daleigh, because in one utterly unprofessional sweep of her arms, she pounded my chest with both her tiny fists. She left them there as she prepared herself mentally to get up and find help. In a few seconds, she could feel her hands rising up. She stared at me in wonder and withdrew her fists quickly, as if my body had been a stove someone had lit right under her fingers.
When I woke up in the hospital, she was there. Since then, she’s never left my side.
* * * * *
Daleigh is the sort of girl who doesn’t just hold a grudge, she squeezes it, and milks it for all its worth. That’s why we were able to get an apartment so quickly when we moved to San Francisco. When we met with the guy renting out apartments on Henry Street, Daleigh told me she recognized him.
“Didn’t we go to school together?”
She’d interrupted him in the middle of his spiel about how the last tenants didn’t keep the rugs clean and he had to spend three hours getting them back to his standard of cleanliness, which was evidently very high.
He had three pens on his desk, lined up next to each other. At first glance, it was nothing unusual. But I’d been staring at his desk for the past half hour as he and Daleigh chattered away, and I noticed that the pens were in order from least to most ink.
He unfolded his arms, leaned forward in his chair and dragged one of the pens into his grip. “Did we?”
“Fourth grade, the, uh,” She raised her hands and made a gesture that looked like she was putting on an invisible crown, “The teacher with the hair? The big…”
“Bouffant?” He offered, over-exaggerating a French accent, not to be funny but to establish himself as the most pompous ass I’ve ever met.
“Yeah,” she laughed, then the corners of her mouth fell as if they’d suddenly been weighted down. “You called me Salvador.”
He stopped doodling on the paper in front of him and looked right into her face; not into her eyes, but probably at the wrinkles that hugged the inner corners of her eyebrows when she frowned. “Huh?” he said, sounding less like he was trying to talk and more like he’d just released the air out of his lungs, as if he’d been socked in the stomach.
“You never called me Daleigh, you called me Salvador. You thought it was funny or something. I guess the other kids thought so too, because I was Salvador up until high school. If I hadn’t have moved away, I probably would’ve been Salvador all through college too.”
“Weren’t you named after him?” He set his pen down gently.
I always imagined Daleigh’s parents decorating their baby’s room in melted clocks and pictures of animals with long spindly legs, but she insisted their obsession stopped at the name. By the time she could walk, the novelty had worn off.
“But that’s not my name.” She looked genuinely hurt.
“I’m sorry, I was young” He shrugged.
“Old enough,” she muttered. There were tears welling up in her eyes.
We got the apartment.
“Boo-ya,” she whispered at me as soon as I’d shut the door behind us. Her smile was back as she twirled down the sidewalk.
We hadn’t been dating very long when we moved in together, so everything about her seemed new. Although we spent nearly every waking moment with each other before that point, there had still been the little times I spent alone: like the half hour between when I’d wake up in the morning and when she would call me to meet her in the park with bread for the ducks. At the time, I found myself a little lost during those moments I had to myself. I wasn’t very good at finding something to occupy my time.
When we moved in together, I found out what she did in those moments. The first morning, boxes were still full of stuff we hadn’t unpacked yet, stacked against the walls in teetering towers of cardboard. When I woke up, all I saw was the folds of sheets on the bed and the morning light painting the windowpane in white and gold streaks.
I rolled over to find her sitting on the floor with her legs crossed over each other. The backs of her wrists rested on her knees. She had her eyes closed, almost as if she’d slept the night posed like that in the middle of the room. When she heard the rustling of the sheets, she slowly raised her eyelids and smiled at me. It was strange to see the always-energetic Daleigh suddenly as still as a statue.
She did this every morning – for how long? I never knew. Even if I woke up early, she was already on the floor.
She also refused to let me make her breakfast. Every morning she ate a plum. Just a single plum, dull red with specks of yellow as if someone had sneezed liquid gold all over it.
My grandfather used to eat plums. He kept a pyramid of them in a dark wicker bowl on the kitchen table, like a bird’s nest full of soft eggs. I had one once, when I was really young. It was nothing like I expected it to be. I thought it would be sweet; it wasn’t. It didn’t taste much like anything for the most part, but it was bitter just under the skin. The flesh was sallow and bruised. It’s a very sad fruit.
At first I was surprised she actually liked plums. Then I realized she didn’t like them at all. I saw the way her nose crinkled up as she sunk her teeth into them.
“John, do you like plums?” she asked me during that first week in the apartment.
I hovered my spoon an inch above my cereal. The milk wrapped around the edges and slid off into the bowl. “No.” I pushed the last few cheerios around with the back of my spoon. “Do you?”
She laughed. I felt a little dumb for asking. When she stopped laughing, she replied, “no.”
“Oh.” I caught the cheerios on my spoon.
She laughed again. “Now you’re wondering why I eat them.”
“No.” And the truth was I really wasn’t. It seemed strange to keep a drawer full of a fruit you don’t like in your refrigerator, but pretty much everything she did was strange. I was worried that if I understood everything she did, that air of mystery around her would disappear and I’d never get it back; I liked how we were.
“You know my brother?”
“You have a brother?”
She smiled, but I was trying to remember if she’d ever mentioned him before. “Yeah, anyway, he was born on March fourth. Nineteen sixty… two? No, sixty-three. A couple of years later, I realized William Carlos Williams died that day.”
“He was this poet, you’ve probably heard his stuff before, ‘I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox’?”
It took me a moment to figure out that she was quoting something. I nodded as if I understood.
“I was young, it was dumb. I had this thought that he died for my brother. Like, he died so my brother could live, you know? Reincarnation? Or… no, that’s not reincarnation. Well, you get what I mean.” She got up from the table and threw the plum pit into the garbage.
“I don’t know if I do.” My milk had gotten too warm. It was like drinking cloudy liquid sugar, so I poured it down the sink.
“Well, I started putting plums in the fridge, because that’s what that one poem was about, plums in the fridge, but my mom said they were just going bad and that she wasn’t going to buy any more unless I ate them. I didn’t really think about how they tasted, but I thought if I was dead and I wrote a poem about plums and someone ate plums for me, that’d be pretty sweet.”
“Okay.” I didn’t get it, but I knew if I didn’t say something, she would keep talking. I didn’t even like eating plums myself, why would I want to listen to anyone, even Daleigh, talk about them?.
* * * * *
The truth is that I would give anything to listen to her talk about plums now, or anything else she’d want to talk about. I just wanted to hear her voice. She’d raced in front of me and got her cup before me.
I used to read James Bond books, and I remember one that said the 00 agents had cyanide capsules in their molars so if they got captured, they could bite down on it and poison themselves. I’m sure if Daleigh had been a 00 agent, they would have told her that it takes ten seconds for cyanide to kill you.
I wanted to stop her. She drank the poison and lied down on the ground with the others. Children were crying everywhere, people were shouting and preaching as everyone was dying.
“We’ve lived as no other people have lived and loved. We’ve had as much of this world as we’re going to get.”
Did we? Have we? Are these people really done with their lives? Have they done everything they’ve always wanted?
Have they kissed in the rain?
Have they stayed up all night talking on the phone?
Have they fallen in love?
“Let’s be done with the agony of it!”
Are they really all living in agony? I wondered if that’s the way Daleigh felt. When I looked over, she was still on the ground, but she was shaking. I suddenly felt worthless. She was dying and I couldn’t do anything to save her. I tried to swallow the spit pooling around my tongue but my jaw was stiff and I couldn’t breathe.
“It’s far harder to have to watch you every day die slowly, and from the time you were a child to the time you get gray you’re dying.”
But I’m not done. If all I’m doing is dying, I’m not ready to end it. If these last few months have been nothing but dying, at least I was dying with her. But I can’t do it now. All my blood seemed to drain to my feet; my head was floating and it felt like I was trying to wade through molasses.
I need to get out of here.