The food is excellent. The lines are never long. There’s nothing to do with your hands. These are the first things I tell my son. Then we don’t talk again for something like two hundred years.
The food is excellent, but nobody knows where it comes from. Your mother’s Sunday dinner. A corn dog from the county fair. You eat from your own life only. You order from memory, as best you can. Your birthday cake, your wedding cake, your graduation barbecue. You give the cafeteria workers some coordinate, some connection, and out comes the tray. Your grandmother’s pot roast. The double cheeseburger from the Lincoln Inn.
If you try to take a bite of someone else’s food, it vanishes as your teeth descend.
In the cafeteria the workers call out the year at regular intervals. For a while, every time you go to eat you hear them shouting: “Twenty-five thirty-four! Twenty-five thirty-four!”
Until, before you know it: “Twenty-five thirty-five! Twenty-five thirty-five!”
Right now, as I tell this, it’s 2613. There’s a long way to go. Your age at death becomes your age forever. Your body at death is your body forever — from scars to missing limbs to brain damage. In the cafeteria, people sit with others of their age and era — tables full of bald old men from my century, children from flu epidemics in the 1800s, young soldiers from every time. When you see mixed ages, it’s a family, and it usually means someone new has arrived and they’ve gathered in welcome.
I woke up here at forty-seven, a familiar arthritic throb in my hip. I couldn’t think what came before. I beat almost everyone: my mother, my two brothers, my son, my daughter, my ex-wife, possible grandchildren, and Janet, the woman who lived in the apartment down the hall. Not counting my father, I went first out of all the people who mattered in my life. I never went to a single funeral that made me cry.
After my ex-wife, Brynne, arrived and spent fifty years or so here, we talked about that. How I left so much grieving behind. She told me it was just one more example of me getting away with something. She was still angry, after all that time.
“You never wanted to do the things everybody had to do,” she said. “You’re like a child.”
“No one’s life is all one way,” I said.
“Or an impulsive monkey.”
In my whole life I never felt anything but thwarted and blocked. Nobody ever understands you, not even here. Here is something I wish I’d told my son and never have: There is no peace here. All the trappings of peace, yes, all the silence and emptiness, but those are just shells. If you want peace, you have to find it in the life you left behind. You wake in a simple room of interlocking cinder blocks, painted gray. One chair, one cot, one window filled with opaque gray. You can’t tell whether the gray is outside air or the windowpane itself. You will never know. It is like morning, in half-light. A late morning after a dream.
When I woke up here, Dad came to see me first — he showed me out of my room and explained how the cafeteria works. He called me “buddy” and seemed maniacally happy about my arrival.
“Wasn’t expecting you
this quick,” he said, and then he laughed so wide I could see the metal fillings in his back teeth.
He was nervous, a lot nicer than I was used to. I’m older than him here, and that was strange. We stole looks at each other like kids at a dance. Pretty soon, my whole outlook on him changed. I’d always thought he was mean, but I started to see him as merely young, too young to expect much from. I hoped maybe I could teach him a thing or two, but nothing like that ever grew up between us.
I don’t know why, but he never told me about reliving. I found out about that on my own.
A few decades later, my daughter, Annie, arrived and I started going to see her. She was too young to die — breast cancer at fifty-one — but she’s older than me here. She seemed perfectly put together — neat black hair, big alert eyes, a stillness under every movement. I felt proud of her, though I had no credit coming. We would get together and share a meal, and I would try to give her advice about this place. I made a point of telling her about the re-living — how to control it, how to guide it.
“Now that it’s gone,” I said, “your life is the only thing you have left.”
I told her how to concentrate in just the right way, to lock on to some detail or emotion from the moment in your life that you want to visit. Concentrate in the right way, I said, and the next thing you know, you’re back in it. Back in it for as long as you want. Back in it to hunt for perfect moments. I told her to watch out for the bad times, though, how the bad times are always underneath even the happiest ones. I gave her the best advice I could. I was afraid she might be forgiving me in the same way I had forgiven Dad — holding me one or two percent less to blame due to my youth and ignorance.
“Try sports,” I said, suggesting some avenues for re-living. “You always liked sports.”
She was a nice woman, no thanks to me, so I didn’t find out for years that she hadn’t played a sport since she was twelve, that she never attended a sporting event as an adult, and that she refused to let her son play football because she was scared he would get hurt. I am in the swimming pool, bob-walking through the shallow end, water tugging against me as I try to speed up, and the pool is a chamber of sound, of children’s cries and parents calling and everybody shouting names, names, names, but none of them mine. I sink underwater and open my eyes in the stinging blue. It’s like shade under there, legs like machine parts, moving without purpose against the pressure of silence. It’s hard to keep straight, but it goes something like this: My father died first, then me, then my mother, my ex-wife, my daughter, Janet from down the hall, my son.
Janet, the last woman in my life, the last chance at a real whatever, told me after she arrived that she didn’t want to see me here. She was the first to turn. After I died, she’d started seeing a counselor. She said I had abused her emotionally.
“Emotional abuse is every bit as harmful as physical abuse,” she said, nodding certainly. “Every bit.”
“How would you know?” I said. “Even if I did abuse your emotions? Did I ever hit you? Did anyone ever hit you? Physical abuse is probably a lot
This was fairly early in my death. I hadn’t yet begun to prize relationships.
She said, “You didn’t love me enough. You didn’t love me at all, maybe.”
“I absolutely did,” I said, which wasn’t true, not like with my wife, who I loved so much at one time that I felt like it could have destroyed me. Janet and I drifted together thanks to drink and the proximity of our apartmen...