I have experienced some tastes of my afterlife as a crustacean.
In it, I am one of many, on a beach with purple sand abutting a sea that could be water but might be some other liquid entirely, beneath stars that seem larger and brighter than any I see in the night sky now. The effect is very alien, but I have no idea whether the place really looks that strange, because I am looking at it with the eyes of a creature not human, which may be seeing it in spectra my human self cannot measure. Maybe whatever I am then adds all those colors; maybe what I perceive is an error in translation between the human being I am now and the crustacean I will be then.
Either of these two explanations can also apply to the constant high-pitched hum that never goes away there, which strikes me as the kind of thing that should be maddening but which to my crustacean self is a beloved and necessary part of the environment, a part of the ambience I treasure and need in order to live. It is the constant background music of my life in a shell, and maybe I describe it wrongly. I am a man, and as a crustacean my mind works differently than the mind of a man. It is slower, and harsher, and yet in some ways more elevated and perceptive. It is wise in a way I cannot be, while naïve in others I’m not.
As a crustacean I am low to the ground, and spiny, and I survive by using my powerful claws to crack open the shells that the high tide deposits on my beach, and that always contain soft succulent things I extract with a long, flute-like extremity that is most like, but not quite, a tongue. The stored heat in the sand keeps my body temperature regulated and also sets my stomach acids to breaking down whatever I consume. Dragging myself across that sand is a sensual pleasure that I deeply miss whenever that alien world goes away and I am stuck in the body of a human being again.
When I return to being me, I cannot quite summon the thrill of crustacean life, just as I know that it upon remembering me cannot quite summon the thrill of being a soft layer of upright meat, over internal skeleton, wearing a tie and walking around in shoes. This is at some point in my future, after I am born to that life, after I am raised in it, after I live that way for a while; after I have spent some time processing alien thoughts with alien wiring, after I can no longer summon the memories of being me in any real detail. I do, however, like to imagine that it is able to sense itself being watched by me its past self, and that it sends a message back, through all that distance, that in people-speak reads as, “Do not worry. It will be all right.”
• • • •
I get these previews more often nowadays, because I am dying.
It is an astonishing thought. We all know we will die someday, in no large part because we receive this preview of our future as crustacean or flying thing or swimming thing or rooted thing, but also because we see the disappearances of those we know, the aged relatives and unlucky friends and the celebrated people who strut in notoriety for a decade or so and then perish from misadventure or actuarial chance. The President of the United States disappeared a few years ago, felled by an assassin’s bullet, gone so fast that her body never struck the ground. I should know that if it happened to her, a terrestrial ending of some kind will come to me, but until my doctor told me that my time here was short, I held on to that irrational belief we all have that I was somehow an exception, that I would be here, on this planet, a human being, forever. Then I got the first taste of my future life as crustacean that I’ve gotten since childhood; the first of many, as it turns out. I am there often now, more often today since yesterday and no doubt more often still, by tomorrow. “Flickering,” we call it. I am dying, and so I flicker, like some ghostly comedian in an old-time silent movie; a few more minutes every day.
The cause will be an aneurism. It is deep in the brain where no surgeon can get to it, and it is getting larger, and from time to time I suffer little deaths, a second or two in duration, at least once as long as a minute, and each time, witnesses say, I do what people do on dying and vanish from this world, only to pass back into existence confused and disoriented and still thinking like a crustacean. I had some health problems as a child and experienced it then, but not for a long time until an isolated incident at work about sixteen months ago; a few minutes of crustacean followed by the sight of all my co-workers bent over me, looking concerned and, I think, among those who have grown tired of life, envious. Now it happens at least once a day, sometimes many times, and I can no longer work or drive. I fade out and then I fade back in, on the couch, or in our bed, and Analise shows the relief that this time, at least, I have returned. Sometimes tears fall, because she knows that I go where she cannot follow. It’s been established. After she dies, she’ll be a golden ape.
• • • •
On the day I found out that death was coming, I surrendered my driver’s license, because the flash-forwards would be happening more and more often now and it would not do to disappear from existence when I was in my car, barreling down an expressway at seventy. You hear of that happening all the time; one car wanders into the wrong lane and takes out another, and when the authorities get around to pulling out survivors there is no one behind the steering wheel of the car that lost control.
So I gave up my driver’s license as the law required, leaving my car in a parking lot for someone to retrieve later and because I was not yet ready to face Analise with the news, called up the father I hadn’t seen for four years or spoken to at all in two. He was still living out on the island, cashing his retirement checks and posting angry screeds on the political blogs. To my surprise he agreed to see me, and I took an Uber out to the island, passing a familiar neighborhood of attached houses and another of tenements to another where little clapboard homes with front porches sat side by side with lot lines so narrow that the spaces between them were, though planted with resentful strips of grass, less lawns than alleys. That was where we’d lived and where he still hung on. As the Uber dropped me off, I saw that he had come out on the porch to wait for me, his oxygen tank at his left and the table bearing his ashtray and empty beer cans on his right. He nodded at me, but didn’t wave, and I didn’t blame him, because a wave might have testified to a closeness we’d never known. I got out and made my way along the cracked walk to the three stairs leading up to the porch and said, “Hello, Dad,” and he nodded and got straight to the point of the matter, “Hey, Alan, who died?” I told him it was nobody yet and my voice cracked just enough that he figured it out and said, “Aw, hell. Want a beer?”
Alcohol was one of the things I’d been warned against, but there are traditions that must be respected, and so I said yes. He handed me a can and I peeled the top and took a sip and tried not to wince. Even if I was a beer guy, and I never have been, my father is the kind of beer guy who buys the cheapest, most generic brand, disdaining all issues of taste in favor of the ability to create a daily wall of dead soldiers without breaking the bank or muddying the issue with questions like flavor. He patted the folding chair beside him, inviting me to sit and watch the birds. I had no interest in birds and so I repositioned the chair so that it faced him and then sat.
We studied each other for a little bit: him with his fresh jowls and yellow-parchment complexion, myself with sunken cheeks and the complexion of a whiter shade of paper. He smiled and showed flattened teeth and said, “Cancer?”
“Shame,” he said. “You could have had the crab and then been one. Not that I wish cancer on you; I’m just saying. What is it?”
I told him and for a bit I endured his questions about the nature of my ailment and its ensuing prognosis, something he didn’t quite get, but was willing to take an interest in. He ran out of questions at about the time my bladder ran out of space. He told me that the door was open and I went in, hitting what amounted to a solid wall of haze and rotten food stink. He had gotten worse about airing out the house since the last time I saw him. But I persevered, made my way to the downstairs bathroom and, gagging again because he hadn’t flushed this morning, found relief. On my way out, I got the bagged food garbage from the can in the kitchen and brought it out to the can at the curb before returning to him. He didn’t thank me for taking out the trash, just asked if I wanted another beer. But the wariness had entered his eyes, really, that and the alcoholic math pitting the obligations of hospitality against the finite nature of supply. I said I was okay, handed him a couple of hundreds and used the app on my phone to order another car. At which point he said something he’d been saying since my childhood close call with a speeding car gave me the first glimpse of my afterlife, something he’d found quite funny when I was a kid and that had developed a certain pathetic flavor, since.
“I’m gonna be a maggot.”
• • • •
Death is, I tell myself, nothing to be afraid of. This is why the good Lord makes sure we all get these previews, at moments when death seems imminent; why my mother first learned she was going to be some kind of carnivorous alien sunflower at age seventeen, or why my brother Dan spent half his time in the war, blinking in and out of existence to experience flashes of his future incarnation as sentient virus.
The theological argument has always been that God provides these previews to prove his love, to assure us that our souls are eternal and that we only change state, like water turning to ice or vapor. It isn’t much of a comfort to a guy like Dan who understood that he would live out his next life causing peritonitis in some alien bovine’s large intestine. By the time he pulled the pin on himself, he was saying that it could only be an improvement on this goddamned planet. He was a drinker like Dad by then, vacillating between random bursts of drunken hilarity and random bursts of inebriated misery with little in the way of transition, sometimes swinging from one extreme to the other multiple times a minute, the absurdity of his destination manifesting with his own favorite joke, that he was going to move to a condo up a cow’s ass. When he finally disappeared, nobody was watching, but the sheer amount of booze around the place suggested that he’d drunk himself right into his new and even more septic existence. But at least we know where that was, and it’s been so long since then that maybe he’s died again, once or more than once, and now lives as a species he could be proud of.
Mom, wasted in bed without the capacity to sit up, used to choke that she wanted to be that sunflower already, wanted to feel the rich nutrients in the soil rising up through her stalk, to fuel another day’s growth while the golden light from above made every inch of her tingle like fire; and over the last few weeks she spent more and more of her time living that life, sometimes gone for so long that even the doctors gazing down at her empty bed wondered if she had already passed through the veil. Then she would reappear and say, “Oh, not here again,” with something like despair, and though I knew that it was the pain talking, she would also always be upset at herself for expressing such resentment in front of me, her dutiful son, both happy and appalled that her existence as human being still had some hold on her, even when all it could offer was torment. But her alien sunflower life gave us much to talk about. As a human, she didn’t have the vocabulary to fully explain what an alien sunflower thinks, what being one feels like and what politics rule its traffic with others of its kind, but she tried, and there were times when she seemed about to come up with a perfect metaphor before she turned transparent, the wrinkles on her pillow clearly visible through her pale features, and I knew that the sunflower life was pulling at her again, more real to her at that moment than I was.
• • • •
Nobody ever remembers their past lives, though some claim to; that’s just nonsense. We may get little dream-images, impressions of flying or of burrowing underground or otherwise behaving in ways alien to our lives now. They may be memories. But who knows? There is no way to tell for sure.
But I tell Analise that wherever I was when that version of myself who was an alien mouse or hippogriff or slime mold in the life before this one first tasted the proximity of death and caught a glimpse of its future existence as myself, it must have been excited to see that its future included a creature as gorgeous as herself.
She smiles. She’s good at smiling; she lights up the room when she does. She has a laugh like music, and when we make love, she frequently bursts into laughter, as if what we do together is the funniest thing that ever happened on this Earth. When I ask why she says, “Because it is funny. Don’t you know that?” She says that the golden apes, whose ways she knows well, laugh uproariously through the act, and that her own human hilarity during the act can mean that they have extended their influence into the life she lives now, or it might be a peculiarity of her nature that may have influenced where she will end up after this life.
Analise teaches natural science and in particular she teaches exobiology, a profoundly speculative body of knowledge that has only congealed into a science because of the fragmentary reports we compile from the reported lives to come. Some witnesses, she tells her fifth-graders, must surely be lying. People who say that one day they’ll be some noble jungle cat, lord of all the lesser creatures around them, might be concocting that to avoid admitting that instead they’ll be some form of sentient alien moss, giving off clouds of toxic vapor while adhering to a wall in a cave. If people lie on their résumés, they’ll lie about the lives to come. Rare indeed are the grim, honest reports like my father’s, the future as alien larva subsisting on carrion. Surely, some people must glamorize.
But some forms show up more than once, and therefore have the ring of confirmation: the swimmers and the fliers and the predators and the wispy philosophers and the things that we cannot quite understand because the people whose reports we got could only describe them in the most fragmentary ways. It is from her that I know that my crustacean future seems to be unprecedented, and therefore still subject to many uncertainties. I may be the first human being whose trajectory intersects that particular world. Who knows?
Either way, future golden apes, like Analise, are fairly common. Maybe one percent of the human population. It is like a common blood type, really. And among those who don’t know, it’s a desired destination. Who wouldn’t want to be a glorious golden ape?
Analise knows that she will be a golden ape because of childhood sleep apnea that put her at strong risk for sudden death; an ailment that my in-laws say once made her flicker in her crib like an old-time movie or like a light in danger of going out, which of course she was. The first time she completely went away for more than a second or so, leaving only the indentation in the comforter to prove that she’d ever been there, my mother-in-law went a little crazy with fear that her darling baby would never come back and would instead stay in whatever alien land she’d gone to, living her new life as alien analogue to worm or mushroom or eagle forever with only this slightest brief taste of life as human child to sometimes disturb her dreams. Then Analise came back, coughing but gurgling in evident delight, testifying that her destination had been perceived by her infant self as a good place, and giving cause for hope throughout every subsequent attack until, in time, she obtained language and was able to explain that she had another life as a “blonde monkey.”
In time, she confirmed that she meant “golden ape,” the apnea went away, and she experienced no further tastes of that future until one day in her twenties when she choked on a fragment of chicken bone and disappeared in the middle of a crowded restaurant, and then found herself in the upper branches of a mile-high tree beneath looming scarlet clouds. That lasted all of three minutes before she popped back into terrestrial existence, gasping heavily. She knew a golden ape lover in that three minutes, and she still speaks of the experience with dreamy eyes, because no one who has ever had a taste of that future can ever describe it in terms that don’t make it sound like paradise.
• • • •
Early in our dating life, she said, “I had long furry arms like an orangutan’s, but it was really nothing like that. I wasn’t built like an orangutan, for one thing. I had six limbs, not four, and they all came together in a torso that didn’t have much to it; not so much a trunk as an intersection. I think I may have been more like a spider. But there were others around me, talking, and I knew what they were saying, and it was beautiful. We were philosophers. We lived so high up that tree that the forest floor was a rumor, and still so far below the canopy that sunlight struck us only as little needles of light as slight as pinky fingers, and there were these constant mists that swirled around us, perfumed by all the flowers, and what I remember most about it was that it made me horny; it’s making me horny now, just describing it, but it’s not me the human woman feeling that way, it’s me remembering myself as that ape, and being more at home there than I ever was as a person. Do you feel that way, as your crab?”
She had a bad habit of calling my crustacean self a crab, when in fact I had told her that it was really its own thing and as hard to categorize as a crab as her next life was categorized as an ape. We all do that, with our merely human tongues. After our flash-forwards, we say that we became a sunflower like my mom and say that it was not really a sunflower. We say that we became a dolphin or a fish or a horse and then we hasten to add, “only not really like that,” because of course it’s not like that; what we’re headed for is something that never evolved on Earth, that cannot be categorized in the terms of terrestrial evolution. But the comparisons we apologize for still exist. So she says “golden ape,” laughing that even there, she’s still blonde; and I say “crustacean,” and add that I always did like the beach. And these days, like Mom, I spend increasing time in that future place, aware with every even brief visit that I am fast approaching the moment when I go there and do not come back; when I vanish in place and do not reappear, any more than Mom or Dan reappeared.
“Yes,” I said simply. “I feel that way, as a crab.”
Though I do not think the crustacean I will become thinks of sex, much. There is certainly a reproductive impulse, but I don’t think the sex/pleasure connection works on that species the way it does for human beings, or for golden apes. The pleasure I derive from my tastes of life as that species is more connected to the specific sensual impulse of warm sand, heating up my insides and making the food in my stomach break down the way it must. As a crustacean, it is the sand that turns me on; the sand that gives me the crustacean equivalent of orgasm. But I did not say so, when we discussed this, because I was focused on the prospect of getting her into bed for the first time and thought it better to accentuate the drives we shared in this incarnation than those that would be present in the next. And so we had kinky spider-ape snapping crustacean sex, laughing about it, her saying ook-ook when it seemed appropriate and me saying some witless thing about getting my claws on her, but there were just two human beings there, really; two who got to know that which was also present, even though it wouldn’t always be. And then we did it again, and again a couple of nights after that, and again on multiple occasions after that, and for a time neither of us had any close calls immediate enough to manifest our futures again; and for a time, we were just people; a process I now, without volition, abandon multiple times a day. I am a man becoming less and less a human being and more and more a scuttler on sand.
• • • •
One day when she is out shopping and I am stuck at home watching a classic movies channel, the world goes away with a hard snap and, I, during the black transition, think that this is it. It is so sudden it could only be true death, and so she must be coming home to an empty house, my presence marked only by the indentation I leave on the couch. I find myself on that alien beach, surrounded by the others of my kind, and it is so vivid that it puts all my memories as human being in the shadow, and I also find out that life as this crustacean thing is more complicated than all my past previews suggested, because my kind is at war. The alien software driving whatever my new crustacean species uses to house its mind is not talented at counting, but there must be thousands of us crowding those sands, and we are marching, or as close to marching as we are built for, and we are advancing on creatures not quite like us, who I have the innate knowledge of as ancient enemies who are a direct threat to our existence, and who must be repelled in this, their perennial effort to claim our perfect feeding ground for themselves. They are, I think, white lobster-things, though again the differences between the human taxonomic vocabulary and the vocabulary of this creature I am make the precise classification impossible. They are without number. They are perceived by me as terrifyingly evil, but I know that they have been defeated before, and that they can be defeated again, as bad as it looks now. They must be. When we close with them, our claws clatter against theirs, and both sides snip and tear, and the beach turns the color of blood—a specific shade I have no human analogue for—as carapaces are punctured and internal meat is ripped out and as twitching limbs continue to thrash like things that still have input into their own fates. The scent of carnage is overpowering, and as we all fight for our lives, the stench draws the birds, which are, much like we’re not really crustaceans but something that reminds human beings of crustaceans, not birds but things that are easiest to explain as an analogue to sea gulls. They swoop down in great numbers, the sky turning to night, and they land on anything at all disabled and tear at us with their beaks, claiming whatever food they can. I see a companion impaled through the midsection, screeching in the precise way we do when death comes for us, and for one heartbeat of profound disconnection I think of all this in the way that a human being might, wondering if any of these damned birds were ever once people, and if any one of them is experiencing this moment from the point of view of some piece of shit having a near-death experience on Earth, and thinking of this assault upon our innocent kind as something to look forward to, something that will render his or her current life as librarian or taxi driver or brain surgeon a pale afterthought, once it has reached this moment. Ignoring the white-lobster enemy I launch myself at the gull-thing instead, and as it pecks at me, I wrap my powerful claws around its feathered throat.
Then there is that moment of disconnect again and I find myself looking up at Analise, who is weeping, who is saying that she thought I was gone for sure this time, and no woman on Earth has ever looked more beautiful, and no woman ever married to a man who loved her has ever looked more alien. I cannot make sense of her features. What are those glossy, wet objects set in hollows, beneath that hanging brow? What is that pale protruding triangle? That gaping abyss beneath, lined in glossy red coloring, what is that, and what is that worm I thought I saw inhabiting it? She is alien terror on a Lovecraftian scale, and then in a flash, it is just my wife, resolving in the way any incomprehensible sight does once it returns to making sense. She lowers her forehead to mine, and for a time we weep together, happy that this part of our respective eternal stories is not over.
But I am also thinking that I have been robbed of my revenge on that gull.
• • • •
Dr. Patel sees me every few weeks to check on the progress of my deterioration. He says that I am doing as well as he had any right to expect. That is the way he frames it, as a prospect measured by his own degree of hope, and I do not know whether to feel my condition honored or the object of condescension. I have gotten over-sensitive, I suppose, in these the past few months of my life, and it takes an active act of charity to resolve it with the rationalization that it shows how much he cares.
He also says that these regular measurements are academic, because aside from some palliative care, there is little he can do. The end is coming. Every day I live damages me; every moment I vanish and spend another few minutes as crustacean brings me closer to my permanent transition. I have, as a dying man, already undergone a permanent metamorphosis, in a way. I have already stopped being the guy who showers and gets dressed and eats breakfast and only then wakes up the wife whose shift starts an hour after mine. I have stopped being the guy who goes to work and sees himself as a useful person. I am now the man who drifts off early in the evening, sleeps an additional three hours and still wakes up tired, who has little energy to spend on the activities that take up the rest of the day. The metamorphosis will continue and I will someday soon stop being the guy who walks upright and breathes oxygen. I will instead become something else, something I have made no secret about longing to become; and that might happen later today or it might happen six months from now, and my discussions with Patel have become more about amelioration, about palliative treatments, about therapies to help me put aside what I am and come to terms with what I will be.
Still, he does what he always does to measure my ailment’s progress. He shines a light in my eyes, noting the dilation intervals of both pupils. He tests my reflexes. He asks me if there’s any pain, not that he expects any pain; the brain doesn’t feel it, he says. He asks if I’m keeping my spirits up. I say I am, and he says that’s good.
He does this and as the examination continues, I watch him more and more closely, and increasingly confirm something that I first perceived on the day when he told me I was terminal; that it is all rote, all professionalism unpolluted by passion, all the behavior of a man who, though good at his job, feels absolutely none of it. I am more and more certain that he actually envies me, that his emotional investment is actually more in the life to come than in the life he’s currently stranded in.
I ask him if he has learned the form of his own next incarnation.
Something strange comes into his eyes, and he says, “An elephant.”
Only, he now corrects himself, not an elephant. The creature he will be reborn as has two trunks, a plate of bone protecting the back of the neck, and a pair of additional eyes at the base of the spine, forever searching for predators who might be approaching from behind. And the plants, he says, the plants. They look nothing like anything to be found on the African savannah. But oh, the way they taste . . . and then he seems to remember where he is, and who he’s speaking to, and that professional façade slides back into position, and we are once again doctor and patient, with nothing but the facts of the case between us.
Then I say, “Has anybody ever succeeded in changing it?”
He frowns. “What do you mean, changing it?”
“The destination species.”
“I thought you were looking forward to being a crustacean.”
“I am. From the tastes I’ve gotten, it’s quite enjoyable.”
“I’ve had another glimpse and learned more. They have wars. Very bloody wars. I was on one of their battlefields and it was . . . well, total, absolute carnage. Savagery, really. What if that’s not what I want in a life? What if I want to be a golden ape and live with Analise? Is there any way I can change my destination? Has anybody ever done that?”
I recognize the look on his learned face. It’s the physician’s default compassionate look, the same one he wore when he pronounced my condition inoperable. He places his hand on my shoulder and he tells me that people have tried; that they’ve gone to hypnotists and they’ve practiced intense meditation and they’ve spent all their time picturing the destination they want over the destination they’ve learned, and in some cases it has eaten up all their energies in what time they had left.
I ask if it’s ever worked, even once, and the default compassionate look intensifies and he says that when he was a child there was a common belief that if you die in a dream you die in real life, and it was bandied about as a fact, until somebody finally asked the logical question: Even if that was true, how would we even know, when nobody’s ever returned from permanent death to report it?
I say I don’t know, and he says,
“Well, then, the same is true about changing your destination. There are posited treatments, offered by therapists and drug companies and religious leaders, and they all claim to work, but they all have the same thing in common: Nobody’s ever come back from their new life as an alien lemur to say they got to be that instead of an alien pilot fish. Nobody’s ever said that they’ve arranged to be human for the second time in a row, told us that they when they come back they’ll give us the secret password to confirm it, then twenty years later, having been reborn and progressed to adulthood, walked back into the laboratory to say, it’s me, Phil, and as I told you before, the crow flies at midnight. It’s never happened. Not even once. My personal belief is that it cannot. We are stuck being what we are and we are stuck being whatever we’ll soon become, until that cycle ends and we start another random existence, somewhere else. It’s just the way things are. Stop worrying about it.”
I can’t help asking, “But what if it’s terrible?”
• • • •
Once trapped at home again, I start reading up and find among the reams of inevitable know-nothing bullshit an interesting philosophical experiment, by a thinker who I’ve never encountered before. Imagine, she said, that all the afterlives we’ve documented over the centuries were reduced to an irreducible binary, one good and one bad. Posit that everyone who lives ultimately goes to one or the other, based on some factor that could be measured and even influenced: with virtue, for instance. Imagine further that the price we paid for this simplicity, this promise that the best of us will get to enjoy joyous reunions with their loved ones, was the absence of certainty; that we honestly had no way of knowing whether this was a true promise or just something that somebody made up.
This would be terrible, she said. Our whole lives as human beings would be spent bargaining. What would be the point of that? If I’m going to be some scaled flying squirrel and if I know that from the very first time I experience uncertainty about my immediate survival, don’t I then lose what would otherwise be an overwhelming fear of death? Am I not blessed by knowing?
And what if it’s not good? I ask, silently. What if your flying squirrels use their gliding capacity to invade the branches of other squirrels, and slaughter them in the places where they nest? What if this is a daily part of the life you are destined to be born to and there’s nothing to be done about it? Wouldn’t the uncertainty be preferable?
The tract offers no answer. Nor does the one I read next, or the one after that. I fall into a depression, and for the first time since my ailment was diagnosed, I go four full days without a flash-forward. It is like I erased my future as crustacean and replaced it with nothing at all, or something so terrible that I cannot be allowed the advance preview, as it would destroy me. And I know that the philosopher is right. The uncertainty is worse.
• • • •
My father dies.
We assume he dies. You can’t know for sure that somebody’s died unless you see them vanish and then confirm that they don’t come back. Many are the people who have been assumed dead for years, until the belated discovery that they simply left town without warning, moved to some distant corner of the Earth, and not let anybody know where they were. They are just absences, really; and my father, who has been an absence in my life for more years than I care to count, is an even greater absence, in that he doesn’t even leave behind a hole. He is just a different shade of gone.
His death is still a fairly safe assumption, given his age and lifestyle and his poor state of health. On my last visit he’d coughed more than I’d ever seen him cough before, and in our infrequent encounters in years past he’d already coughed so much that you wondered why his lungs hadn’t already resigned in protest. His departure, if death, is less a shock than a consummation long-promised, only unexpected in the sense that when it arrives, it is not something I had spent much time thinking about.
We only know he’s gone because of a service I’d signed him up for, back when we were making more of an effort to stay in touch. Its sole activity was to call his phone daily just to confirm that he was still capable of answering. He had pronounced this a royal pain in the ass but agreed to it, primarily because I begged him. The calls had to be mid to late afternoon to guarantee an answer. Noon would have been too early, because it took him a couple of hours of dragging himself around before he was able to face even the limited challenges of his life; the early evening too late because he was a sleepy drunk and so completely anaesthetized himself by dinnertime that he could not be trusted to respond to even the most insistent callers. Once we established the effective window, he answered the call without fail until he didn’t, and even then, the monitoring service tried two more times before sending the police. They found no sign of him and remained on the premises for three hours just to make sure he would not pop back in. Only after a week or so of further attempts was he presumed gone for good. It was possible, I supposed, that he wasn’t. It was not unheard of, in the old days, for him to take a quick impulsive flight to some resort where he could lose a couple of thousand at cards. But there’s a feeling you get when you’re sure, and I was sure that gone he was. Transitioned into the thing that he had always learned he’d someday become: a maggot.
He had never offered any other details of that life to come, so I cannot say any more about it.
I strongly doubt that there is anything of value to retrieve, but Analise insists that I seek closure, and so we go to his house together, sweeping aside the empties on the front porch and gagging anew once making it inside. The foul air is so thick that I imagine it retaining its shape with the walls gone, a ghost-house of gray vapor to mark the place where once an embittered, alcoholic old man padded about, working on a life that had become an exercise in retaining a constant buzz. Analise opens windows to the east and west to create a cross-breeze, and sets the fans to going to disturb the murk; and over the next four hours we empty overflowing ashtrays, boxed porn magazines, and toss out most of the family photos. The refrigerator contains milk so ancient that it has partially solidified, cheese that has taken on the consistency of cardboard, and a Chinese take-out carton with half a serving of something so far beyond its sell-by date that it may have been what sent him to his future life as maggot; may have even been, judging by some of the bad meat in a barely functional freezer, an actual conscious attempt to evoke that future existence, with a similar diet. I don’t know. I find one personal item I keep, a picture of Mom, though when I get home I will have to spray it with deodorizer to lessen its tobacco reek enough to bear having it around. I see another item I tell Analise to throw out, a picture of Dan that I stare at for a while, not with grief or nostalgia, but with the horrific whimsy of Dan’s virus self infecting something and my father’s maggot self infesting the corpse. And then, the thought comes, the remains make their way to the sea, and nourishes the life that your crustacean self feeds on. I have to go outside and be ill.
Analise comes out while I am still throwing up. “Do you want to leave?”
For one lunatic moment, I do not know whether she was referencing this house or this planet.
I could say yes, I’m dizzy, I need to go. But closure doesn’t come that simply. I say that it’s just the stink in there and that I’ll be okay in a minute. She goes back inside to get some water from the tap, and until she returns I wish that I could disappear right now, even if only for a few seconds, even if only to see my future crustacean self safely recovered from its war and back in a dream of peace.
• • • •
Later, thinking in bed while Analise sleeps gently snoring beside me, I try to tell myself that I shouldn’t worry about that battle on the beach, not too much. After all, can you imagine just how widely variant the brief random tastes of life as a human being must be, to those who come before us? Experiencing them from some prior life as an alien mole, you could find this strange alien thing known as a person dancing, or scrubbing floors; making love, or puking his guts out; enjoying the best meal of his life, or having the shit kicked out of him in an alley. Imagine as your sole preview of human existence some adventurer hang-gliding, thousands of feet above a checkerboard landscape, feeling that delicious mixture of elation and fear and guiding himself toward a landing field he will not even reach for another five minutes? To the mole, it is hard to fathom that for the creature he barely understands, the pictured experience is not typical, even if it’s regularly repeated. Now imagine that mole getting the same human being, only this time he’s waiting on some line at the post office, early December, and experiencing only the overpowering need to pee and the hope that this interminable vigil doesn’t last another hour. These are two snapshots from the life of one person, and so are snapshots of myself kissing Analise as we both lean on the deck of a ship, and me holding Analise as she shudders through the aftermath of the discovery that she can never have children. So are me laughing with adolescent hilarity on a roller coaster and me sitting under a bridge less than a year later, knowing that my shitty father will beat me if he’s still awake when I get home.
My crustacean exults in the warmth of the sand beneath it, and also wars with natural enemies across a beach wracked with carnage? That’s a minor discrepancy by comparison, compared with the one that separates my ebullience upon finding out that Analise loved me, and my later brief burning hatred for her, when I found out from her tearful confession that she’d spent the past year of our married lives making secret rendezvouses with a succession of men.
Explain that to the mole. She couldn’t even explain it to me.
She just said that she’d gone a little crazy after her dreams of motherhood died, that she’d come to think that this life was just the purgatory she had to endure, while awaiting her genuine life as golden ape; and she had remembered in particular her sense that the apes loved each other with a passion that dwarfed anything felt like human beings. The vignette of herself and some male of her species going at it high above the forest floor had been simple and it had been pure. It had been everything. And she had found herself longing for it as alternative to our own complicated, sweaty, fumbling act, that act not without pleasure that was nevertheless the best human beings could manage. And so she had found herself a website catering to the one percent of people who reported that species in their future, and started meeting up with some of the men, and it had been a series of anonymous acts in motel rooms, and though the ghost of those future golden ape memories had been behind them, they had somehow never lived up to her visions of her post-human future, or even to what we had. “It was a compulsion,” she said, and I hated her, and I hated her for almost two years, and can you imagine the mole trying to understand that? Of course, the mole could not, any more than this future crustacean can.
We can only say that this is part of a life we do not live ourselves, temporarily bleeding back through time to infect the pleasures of this one. And there’s nothing that can be done about it, not that or a brother who committed a fast suicide and a father who committed a slow one.
I only wish for another near-brush with death, so I can place that future life back in context, and I want it to be only a brush, so I can do the same with this one.
• • • •
Weeks pass. I suffer no further slippages. I am overcome with the painful visitation of hope. I begin to believe that my aneurism healed itself. At my next visit, I ask Dr. Patel if this is possible and he orders various scans, and when they are done he says what he had of course already suspected: that my condition does continue to progress, even if it has by sheer chance become asymptomatic of late. He even tells me, “You’re probably just entering the last peaceful interval before the end. It happens, for some lucky ones.”
“What should I do?”
“Enjoy life. It’s life. It’s the last bit you’ll get of this one, before you go crustacean.”
I think on this, and when Analise picks me up in the lobby, I suggest something that I haven’t for a while: that we book a weekend somewhere. Not sometime next month, not later this month, but now. Leaving this afternoon.
She agrees and we run home to pack, one small valise apiece. We get in the car and we drive, hitting the road before we even decide on a destination. When we finally pick one, navigation requires a U-Turn. We think the U-Turn is silly and we laugh like idiots as the map updates. How silly we are! How much like golden apes! And that doesn’t even make me sour, the way references to golden apes sometimes do, now. With so little time to play with, I have come around to the philosophy that my wife just had a lot of love in her and that I was never shorted in it, not even once; and certainly not now. She is, I realize, just an alien, operating from an alien set of rules, as she would be even if she did not have memories of a golden ape future to motivate her; I am a different alien, and so I operate under yet another, and this is normal, and it would be foolish to pollute what little time I have left with grudges that we have settled long ago. I am content. And we are headed for a bed and breakfast where we have stayed twice before, once before we were married and once afterward; a cozy little place with only ten guest rooms and a great view of the water. It is a place we should go again, when I will soon be gone; a place I will miss, for however long I live, as human being and crustacean.
• • • •
It is later. We have checked into our quaint little room, changed our clothes to something nice and strolled up to a narrow two-lane road to a little, strangely isolated little restaurant where I had salmon en croute and she had lobster tails with drawn lemon-butter. It briefly occurs to me to make a joke about her ordering something crustacean, but it’s darkness I don’t want to bring to the table. For the moment, there is no death here, just a man and a woman, enjoying a conversation of no substance, smiling at one another over wine and candlelight.
She excuses herself once, and while she’s gone I flicker for a moment, returning to a world where my fellow diners are averting their eyes. I smile to let everybody know it’s no big deal, and pick up my spoon; but inside, I am wondering. The glimpse I just received had nothing to do with being any kind of crustacean. It barely had anything to do with geometry as I understand it. Things . . . overlapped, though that’s not the right word . . . with other things. I got what I got not out of any variety of sight or sound, but from other senses entirely; things that still buzz in my head, afterward. Whatever I experienced was the viewpoint of something so different, so alien, so removed from both the crustacean life I’d expected and the human life that still has a hold on me that I cannot provide even a single word of referent. I only know that I liked it. I don’t know whether I’ve changed destinations or have simply gotten a glimpse of another destination, further on, and on musing about it for a second or two, decide that it doesn’t matter. It will happen, sooner or later. I can worry about it when it comes.
So we dine and we have some sweet wine and afterward we return down that same two-lane road to the bed and breakfast. We intend to make love, something we haven’t done for a while because of my fragile condition, but we are not ready for that yet because we are stuffed and she is the slightest bit tipsy. So we bypass our lodgings entirely in favor of a walk on the beach. We are not the only couple that has had this idea. There are two or three others, widely scattered, smoking or cuddling or adding to their own states of inebriation. It is dark and the stars are out, uncounted thousands of them, some of which may bear planets that are now home to people I’ve known, some of which Analise and I might travel to someday, perhaps even some of them where, by literally astronomical chance, we might meet again. At this moment, anything seems possible.
The two of us kick off our shoes and stand where the ripples wash over our toes, so we can knead the wet sand, and neither one of us says anything until she squeezes my hand and I tell her something she already knows, that I love her. She says that she loves me too and suggests that she return to the room for a bath towel, so we can sit on the sand for a while. I say that’s a good idea, and let her go, promising to be here when she gets back, a promise that is silly, that has always been silly, because it is the kind of thing that nobody can ever guarantee, even in the prime of health. But I will do my best.
And then she is gone and I am left standing on the boundary between two worlds, the ocean and the land, thinking about nothing but that, until I spot something at the corner of my eye, scuttling across the sand.
Of course it’s a crab, about half the size of my fist, that has somehow decided that my visit to its domain is hostile. It is not anything like the future self I imagine to be massive, though I have no real way of determining its scale, any more than Analise can determine scale for her golden apes, who for all we on Earth know might be microscopic. Its physiognomy is nothing like the creature I know I will someday be, or might for that matter be only five seconds from now; if I collapse to the sand, disappear, and leave Analise with no way of knowing whether I died here without warning, or instead gave in to suicidal impulse and marched into the water. (But then there are people in sight, also enjoying the cool night air, and they would see me go, either way, and tell her.) This crab possesses some of my future self’s spirit, and though I outweigh it by a factor of one hundred, nevertheless seems to believe it could win a battle with me. Who knows? If the winner is the one who draws blood, maybe it could. And if it is anything like the future crustacean self whose life I have previewed, maybe it hears that hum that has so fascinated me: its music, which can mean anything.
As I gaze down at it, it raises its pincers in warning, and I have absolutely no doubt that it could cause me pain, another thing it happens to have in common with the crustacean self whose appearance in my future is now in doubt. Still, I regard the little creature benevolently. It is not my enemy, and I am not its, not even as an occasional consumer of seafood. Right now, and maybe for all time, we are brothers.
I gaze down in love and say, “Enjoy your trip.”