12:14 AM, Bangkok
It is 12:14 AM, Bangkok time, and I am drowning in my own sweat. Death pulverizes logic. A silver minnow streaks through my thoughts without result, tickling the concrete body I cannot move. This is ridiculous. Wiggle your toes. I can’t. Inhale. The world is reduced to shadow and paint and the weightless respiration of my roommate. “It’s alright,” a photon whispers, slatting through the blinds, “You’re not dying. You’re 22.”
Neurons bundle tighter, oil bouncing on a piping-hot skillet, electric acid burning through chemical pathways in defiance of logic. Math begins. Solving for x, if a equals a twelve-hour plane ride and b equals life without Jesus, what is the answer? Heart Attack. Obviously. Deep Vein Thrombosis due to poor salvation, the cause.
It is terribly still in this liminal dark, as though life hangs paralyzed in the abyss between shadow and light. Every sound its own inescapable melody. The ceiling fan throbs, a washing machine rocking off-center. It cannot knock impending doom from its pedestal.
For a second, a shred of clarity hovers over my eyes: “Wake Karen. Ask for help.” There is a rhinoceros sitting on my chest, compressing lungs, impossible to budge. Speaking is a luxury, and I am a pauper.
As a child of six or seven, I used to visit the forest behind the Cape Cod home my father had built. There, I would try to freeze time. The first step was to hold my breath, casually, so as not to alert Time to my intentions. Next, I would repeat a mantra in my head: “Time is frozen. Time has stopped. Time is frozen. Time has stopped.” At last, I would look at my watch the moment I began to exhale, hoping with all the nonchalance I could muster that it would read the same numbers as it had when I’d begun. I never lingered in the forest after I read the results, but I always walked back slower than I’d arrived.
Time was the ultimate sense. It was faith made manifest in seconds and days. If I understood Time and, through that understanding, controlled it, I would know Truth: that still, small voice capable of telling right from wrong and what to do next. If I failed to stop Time, it was proof that I was an imposter in my own life. Desire required kid gloves. Caring too much would leave me in exile, without an existence to call my own. Each failure was a hairline fracture hatching itself through the granite conviction of being Right.
This was before I got cancer, before I knew that Seventh-day Adventism was spiritual foot binding that would release me gasping and disfigured in a cheap hotel on the other side of the globe after I unwrapped myself. This was the golden age when Words had gravitas, when Truth and Right were countries everyone envied you for having visited.
Time stops fifteen years after my first attempt to arrest it. I’d forgotten about the childhood experiments. Now that they’re working, I want amnesia. When Time stops, I die. It needs to speed up. I need to speed up so I can live before my horrible wish comes true.
A translucent sheet sticks to my body like rice paper on the tongue. Every systole reinforces the path of blood to heart. How many heartbeats from death am I? Will it be sudden, like bumper cars crashing into each other, sparks flying down from the ceiling? I hope I will simply drop to sleep and never awaken. The fan whumps overhead, pushing air ripe with vomit and chili sweat over my unblinking eyes.
I cannot pray, will not pray, because I hurled belief at the sky a year ago and have closed that door forever. If I am to die, I will die facing the chipped plaster wall, wondering what they will do with my body instead of wondering whether I will go to heaven.
Death is calm crystal, a gentle hand on either side of my eyes, making me focus on one thing. Nothing else is important like this. My hands lie still at my sides, breath suspended between inhale and exhale. I win back all those years of wondering and mediocre longing. If I get up from this, I will return to my spawning grounds and make peace with the past. It is not a bargain, but a promise. The clarity is there, forcing itself upon me like a street-side evangelist.
Self-knowledge is unflattering at this hour. I want to die in a place where I can read the signs and speak my name to someone without having to repeat myself. This universe of personal must-haves is microscopic and meager. My body is a plank left to dry and crack in the sun. Will it ever bend again? The thought disappears, shame hanging its head. This is no time for romanticizing.
My lungs collapse and inflate at the moment I surrender to an anonymous demise. As if they were immobilized until I found some humility. The clock is moving again, and I can hear the subsonic click of the second hand next to my head. With it comes the barrage of thoughts and expectations of what I deserve, how I will get it, and how far away Portland, Oregon, is. Clarity is fast becoming a titration of the past. Every second pulls me back toward a cluttered bearability.
I whisper Karen’s name in the dark and apologize for waking her. She replies softly, her voice full of innocence and faith, the stream carrying blossoms aloft as it speeds over rock and fall. “It’s okay Jaime. How can I help?” For a second, it seems like I can erase these adulterous minutes and say, “Tell me it’s all okay, that I’m not dying.” All I should need to do is look at my watch for everything to fall into lockstep normality, the low-grade despair settling over me like a favorite ice-cream binge.
“I have to go, Karen. I have to go back to Portland.” It is the only thing that makes sense to my shell-shocked brain. I’ve always counted on my mind to carry me out of harm’s way and into opportunity. It has never abandoned me, always held the flicker of possibility of what I could be, what I almost am, even when the voices of Jesus, Ellen White, Mother and Church cascade over my resolve like a tsunami. But they’ve never chimed in unison before this night.
You’ll burn without us. Your cancer is back. Your heart is failing. You will never have the chance to repent. This is your punishment. We are real. This is Truth. Your time is up.
I will get back to Portland by any means necessary so I can apologize to my mother and die in familiar surroundings. I have been too strange for too long and Bangkok is the final insult to my conservative, proper, dutiful upbringing. This is the moment of reckoning. Will I choose my alien path or return to the fold? What is truth when I am being wooed by death?
I don’t want unknown adventure lying beside trash-lined canals in Thailand. I don’t want to teach English in countries where the people look the same to my Western eyes. I don’t want to live at constant odds with my family.
I want to be boringly healthy with no idea that the world consists of more than being the featured singer on Sabbath.
My eyes are opened. I will sell out for security and leave my pride, my dreams, my secular hope on the floor in this cinder block way house and feel vomitously grateful for my mother’s credit card that buys me tickets at each stop around the world.
She and my father do not know I am playing the global prodigal until I reach San Francisco. I have lied to the ticket agent in London and then again in Houston to get the next flight out. My grandfather, dead two years, is dying again for my benefit. No one questions me. I punch myself in the face in the lavatory from Bangkok to London to try and silence the voices. They chatter like wives at potluck. Getting on a long-haul flight so soon after the last one will make your heart explode. Don’t take that aspirin with the Dramamine. It will give you a heart attack. I puke all the way to London.
This is Truth. Life is a moment. Every second is a cadaver. Time is no ally, merely an opportunist.
I stand on the curb outside Portland International Airport, waiting for my father to collect me. He does his duty and keeps a suitable distance. This is a normal reunion. The air is Oregon-fresh, redolent with wet pine and life. I think of the forest again, the solemn acceptance of failure each time my breath ran out before Time capitulated. My father lifts the red suitcase into the Montero and squires me home with a few questions about the trip. We are living on separate threads of reality and there is scant faith to leap any further. This is good enough. I can close my eyes and disappear into the terrible days spanning who I was becoming and what I should have been.