Thirteen days after I fainted in the bodega on Fulton Street, two things happened: my mother sold my childhood home, and I had a follow-up appointment with my GP to discuss the possibility that I might be dead. I remember it was around nine o’clock. I was sitting in the doctor’s small waiting room, staring at old magazines that I’d typically read, but that now, in my state of quasi and unsure animation, seemed a waste. What’s the point of reading the news, I figured, when you no longer had a chance to be part of it? I shared this thought with my GP—a Dr. Cruz who insists I call her Rita—when she beckoned me back into the examination room and asked me to unbutton my shirt. She wasn’t impressed.
“You should be reading the news, particularly when you’re alive,” she said, pressing her stethoscope against my sternum. I gasped at the cold steel. “Which, by the way, you most are. I can hear your heart beating. Here—” she offered me the stethoscope “—give it a listen.”
“No,” I said, buttoning up my shirt. “Really, I think I’d rather not.”
I came to Rita the day after I fainted. When I explained what had happened, she said that I’d probably just been dehydrated, but I wasn’t convinced. I told her how when I woke up I didn’t recognize my own body. I told her how, since then, I’d felt as though I was floating two feet above the person I used to be.
Now, Rita sighed. I struggled with my last button.
“I’ve done some reading,” she said, “and this…this thinking that you’re dead thing—it’s not entirely without precedent. There’s a neurological condition that matches what you’re describing. Something called Cotard Syndrome.” She pressed her glasses up her nose. “I’m not saying that’s what this is. But I can make some referrals. Run some tests.”
I raised my hand to stop her. “There’s no need.” I crossed my legs at my ankles. “I already told you—I’m dead.”
“Sleeping feels like waking up,” I said. “And waking up feels like sleeping.”
I’d come to my childhood house to see my mother. I told her I’d help her pack up boxes before the movers came, but all I’d done was drink two beers.
She knelt in the middle of the living room, her hair tied up with an old handkerchief. Before her were spread hundreds of old photographs we’d both forgotten about. The house felt bare, a bone stripped of its meat. She pretended like she hadn’t heard me.
“What’d you do last night,” she said.
“Walked around.” I clicked the beer bottle against my teeth. “Took a nap in the park.”
“That doesn’t sound safe.”
She picked up a picture and squinted, as if the people in it were total strangers.
“What’s the difference?” I said. “It’s not like I could get hurt.”
She sighed, gathered the photos in her arms, and dumped them in a box marked trash.
“My doctor says there’s a name for it. She says that it’s called Cotard Syndrome.”
My mother wiped her hands on her jeans. “So that’s what you think you’ve got?”
“I don’t think I have anything.” I set the bottle down. “You can’t have anything if you’re dead.”
She stood up. “And here I thought you were just trying to get out of having to help.”
I looked at the box of pictures. “Why are you throwing all those away?”
She said, “Because some of us still have a little interest in being alive.”
I asked her if I could have them.
When she asked me if I planned on scrapbooking in heaven, I left.
“Do you remember when Dad used to give us baths as kids?”
I’d called my sister, Amy, after coming back to my apartment and finding a picture of us as toddlers, sitting naked in a half-full tub.
“I do,” she said, “though I’d really rather not.”
He’d left us when I was ten, and Amy was twelve. Came home one day and said that he’d fallen in love with a real estate agent in Stanford—a woman called Clarice who made him feel alive. Ten years later he died of gall bladder cancer, and I was the only one who went to the funeral; Amy and Mom went golfing, instead.
I cradled the phone next to my shoulder as I tossed the photo back into the box.
My sister said, “Speaking of Dad: If you see the old man wandering around Hell, make sure to tell him I’m a dyke. A big one.”
“I think it’s sort of rude that you assume that now that I’m dead I’m in Hell.”
“Well, Christ. Look around you. Where else could you possibly be?”
I looked down at the box, and began to wonder why I’d taken it in the first place. I suppose I figured that if I could remember the person I used to be, I’d somehow be able to trace my way back to myself again. Now, though, talking to Amy, I realized how tedious that process—that retracing—might actually be.
Suddenly antsy, I stood up.
“I have to go,” I said.
On the other end of the line, Amy crunched down on something. A carrot. “Was it something I said?”
“Well then where are you going?”
I said, “I don’t know. Just out. I have to go out.”
I hung up, picked my coat up off the floor, and left.
I caught a bus down to the port, and took an eight o’clock ferry across the sound to Barrington Island, where my mom used to take Amy and I to the beach once my dad left. It was after sunset when I arrived; a thin ribbon of muted orange trembled on the horizon, and aside from two sea gulls picking at a piece of driftwood, the beach was deserted. I took my shoes off and dug my toes into the sand.
Cotard Delusion is often associated with other psychopathological disorders; it’s not uncommon that patients will also have suffered from schizophrenia or clinical depression before waking up to the reality that they’ve died. I had none of those things. Instead I had a yellowed bruise on my hip from when I fainted, and a box of pictures I didn’t know what to do with, and the keen realization that my body was no longer my own.
I took off my shirt and pants, and my skin bristled against the cool air. It was a clear night; the moon cut slashes of silver across the surface of the water. In the distance, I heard the tires of a car crunching over a gravel road.
I thought: Maybe my body was never mine to lose. Maybe possession isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Maybe I was always like this, always floating an inch above, an inch to the left, an inch out of line. Maybe being dead’s the only way of dealing with the agonizing banalities of the everyday, the unbearable ecstasy of being alive.
Naked, I waded into the water. My feet and calves and knees went numb from the cold, and I pulled in a sharp breath. Plugging my nose and closing my eyes, I dipped beneath the surface.
I fell, or sank, or plummeted. Water flooded my ears with a muted roar, and when I opened my eyes I saw murky shadows, tentacles of kelp made ghostly in the broken moonlight. Time slows down beneath the waves.
“I don’t deserve this,” I remember having said to Rita as I sat on the examination table. She’d just finished explaining that, sometimes, Cotard Delusion can be triggered by emotional trauma. “I have a pretty good life. I haven’t experienced any trauma.” I added: “Now I just feel guilty about being dead.”
Rita washed her hands and leaned against the sink.
“Maybe the problem is how you’re thinking about trauma,” she said. “A person can die from losing a limb, but he can also die from a million little cuts. No one said that trauma always has a beginning, and an end. No one said that pain can’t trickle out of you.”
The fluorescent lights above me flickered.
“You think pain is trickling out of me.”
She said, “I think, probably, that pain is trickling out of all of us.”
I sank further and the light became dimmer. Bubbles escaped from my nose, from the corners of my lips. I could taste the salt, the grime, the bits of ocean that get stuck in these coves, oblivious to the ebbing and flowing of tides. Darkness clouded the edges of my vision, and my lungs burned. I thought of pain trickling out of me, of it trickling out of my sister, my mother, Rita. Half-there memories turned yellow with neglect; piles of old photos in a box marked trash. I thought of how easy it would be to stay here, to keep sinking, to unburden myself and give myself over. To disavow the necessity of time.
But then I kicked my feet. I propelled myself to the surface and gulped in air. I marveled at how impossibly cold it was. At how it felt like the first breath I’d ever taken.
My hair was still wet when I sat down at the table in the back of the diner—a place called Val’s where my father used to take me for milkshakes when he was still alive. I remembered that five years ago, a week after the funeral, I had asked my sister if she’d meet me here to have a beer and talk about Dad and split some onion rings. She turned me down; she said she’d always hated Val’s, that it smelled like old fish sticks and ammonia, and the toilets were always clogged. Now, alone and cold and damp, I was glad she wasn’t there. I was glad to have a full order of onion rings to myself.
They were soggy, and undercooked, and delicious. I smothered them in ketchup and cheap, yellow mustard, and washed them down with two beers. When the waiter—a boy with red hair and a timid smile—asked me if I’d like anything else, I told him yes, I would: everything. He looked at me strangely, as if I’d just demanded the world, and I laughed.
“A burger,” I said. “Let’s start with that.”
He nodded, and was about to scurry away when I added: “And a milkshake, too.”
The Seahawks game played on a television above the bar. Behind me, someone fed a quarter into a pinball machine. When nothing happened, he kicked it and walked away.
Pain trickles out of us, not just from me, but from everyone. It seeps from the creases of our sighs, from the regrets that jolt us awake at 3am; it sinks us like rowboats caught in wild grey tempests. Pain can also be stopped, be dammed. Be plugged up with onion rings, and hamburgers, and beers; be wiped clean by nostalgia, that hazy collection of memories worn soft and pink by time.
The red haired boy delivered my milkshake and told me my burger was on its way. I thanked him once, twice, three times. I kept thanking him until he smiled, and left. Until I plunged my spoon into the whipped cream and tasted the sugar burst against my tongue.
Drunk, I paid my bill and took a cab to the bodega on Fulton Street, the same one where I’d passed out ten days earlier. When I walked in, the grocer behind the counter looked at me and shook his head.
He said, “The last time you were in here I had to call the paramedics.”
I went to the store’s crowded refrigerator and grabbed two tall boys and put ten dollars on the counter. I still smelled like Val’s—a mix of onions rings and chocolate ice cream and over-cooked meat.
“Look, man,” I said. “I just want to buy some beer.”
He squinted at me, and gave me my change. I wanted to tell him that he didn’t have to worry about me. That he would never have to worry about me again. Instead, I just left.
When I arrived at the cemetery I had a difficult time locating my father’s grave; it was dark, well after midnight, and the tombstones were just silhouettes, grey cut-outs from the pitch-black night. Still, though, I managed to find it, and when I did I collapsed to the ground, laughing. I kept laughing, drunk and alone, as I sipped at my beers, and as I flirted with sleep. As grass tickled the backs of my knees, and as, bleary-eyed, I let dawn kiss my tear-streaked cheeks.
Later that morning, after I had gone home and changed into a clean shirt, Rita said to me, “You look tired.”
I had come for another appointment, and she’d just finished taking my pulse.
“Last night I drank beers next to my father’s grave,” I told her.
She set the clipboard she’d been holding down. “Isn’t that being a little dramatic?”
I said, “Probably, but for the first time in a while I was feeling particularly alive.”
She shone an improbably bright light into each of my pupils.
“Well, that’s good news at least.”
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I think it is.”
Grant Ginder is the author of the novels This is How it Starts (Simon and Schuster, 2009), Driver’s Education (Simon and Schuster, 2013), and The People We Hate at the Wedding (Flatiron Books, forthcoming). He received his MFA from New York University, where he currently teaches in the Expository Writing Program.
Eugenia Viti was born in Madrid, to Argentine parents, but has spent most of her life in the Chicagoland area. Her aim is to expose social norms and combat them with humor and to show love in the many variations it exists. Her work is very illustrative and sometimes cartoony, but the content normally juxtaposes the images with its meaning.