Particles of Death
What is it that keeps us alive? Lack of a particle of Death.
On the trolley, blessed with a seat, or suffering on my feet in the aisle, I sigh and glance. The doors inhale hot breeze. The crowd shifts shape, bags and faces, outfits and moods. I hold my breath at each stop until the air conditioning cools my face. At the 40th Street portal, the trolley glides underground toward the deepest point, where my eyes turn to the subway riders on the tracks beside us, blue faces flickering by like an old film: friends and neighbors, our future or former selves, sailing off, there they go. This is the trolley’s natural power: a sacred public place to feel carried away toward another life in your own body and someone else’s. Public transport.
Particles of death float in the black water that streams between the tracks below us, running in the opposite direction of the subway and trolley cars. It obeys another gravity. It’s older than the steel used to forge the rails or the city above and possesses deep patience, having passed through our ancestors and the atmosphere many times. It’s the color of polluted tears.
Fearing Death, it’s hard not to be anxious about the workday, even in the morning, before the elevator doors have closed to take me up to my cubicle. Like the poets say, you could pass away in an office like this and probably not feel it. I know how to stay alive. As the hours go by, I meditate on the particle of Death I expelled at a certain trolley stop along the way. One of those other selves below ground has inhaled it and surged away. In my office chair I imagine where it might be traveling and where that other traveler will get rid of it. They’re in an office similar to mine, where I watch myself and my colleagues age, where the aisles of cubicles are always clear of strange bodies and if someone does arrive, lost, carrying a computer bag or delivering packages, they ask polite questions only, they don’t jostle or curse like we do on the trolley, and according to policy they smell just fine, never sighing, having left their particles of Death somewhere else, too, or they conceal it like a professional, so that no one will question their competence or dedication.
The work I do to be paid is one thing, but surviving for real is another job altogether. You have to be good at both. It took me years, at least a decade of hard work, to acknowledge and accept this.
When the time comes to go back underground it’s there, the familiar shape-shifting danger that lives in the question, “What is it that keeps us alive?” Alertly I eye the other passengers to see who does and does not value togetherness, and a kind word from a stranger offering their seat to someone in need can feel like spring rain. A cold bottle of water after work is refreshing, too, and we all know how crucial hydration is before a journey, to flush away deposits of guilt and cancerous irony. I am prepared.
When our trolley car climbs to the surface again at the portal, the setting sun meets us there. The tracks are aglow, a curving gilded rune, conveying more of the day’s travelers who have escaped Death again, having deposited their particles in the black water that flows backward in time. The worst that happens, on good days, is that we inhale one another’s bleak weariness, where a dream from within, or a fantasy borrowed from a loved one or pet will chase down the weight of the weariness with sharp sticks, into a forest filled with benevolent, merciless spirits. Enjoying freedom from Death one night as I lay in bed, I saw the trolleys erupt from beneath the city streets, streak low in the sky toward the Poconos, surging downward into dark green valleys, where they gathered to skip over the black lakes, dancing from star to star along heaven’s shimmering reflection.
To place Death inside a particle, like a word, or a glance or a sigh, and let it go—is it a bad habit? Perhaps. It’s not charitable. But it nurtures my ability to empathize at other important times. People love to say you’ll be miserable if you stay alone for too long. But loneliness can be expelled quite easily. The other morning, coming back from the farmer’s market, I said something nice to a child and she looked at me with a terrible accusation, as if the timbre of my voice belied all the pieces of Death I’ve expelled, like she damned me for using her to feel better, after I’d polluted the neighborhood with so many dangerous particles. I repeated myself to the girl, “How are you? You look so pretty. Hi.” She said nothing and pulled her father’s hand to get them away from me, further down the sidewalk. He looked back to smile and shrug; I mirrored him to show that it was alright. I didn’t need her to say hello back to me. I didn’t need her little smile. I sighed and felt alive. I almost laughed as I turned and walked away.
The Breath of Life
I love her. I remember loving her and being loved by her.
She loves me and remembers feeling loved.
We are in love and in that way it is like a vehicle carrying us forward as we remember having loved one another in the past, how the hours in love were suddenly months and years in love.
To say that we’ve ever stepped outside of love feels a bit dangerous, though it’s hard to explain why. Because we always caught up with love later on, or it slowed down to remind us how important it is to stay inside, not to put our arms or legs or head outside the vehicle.
Are people traveling in love together supposed to go in the same direction, at the same speed? Or is it constantly going past us shark-like in time and coming back around again? Or perhaps love is pulling time along with it. Maybe it’s the impatient one?
When it comes back, or we come to, sitting up, having dreamt we left, it reminds us with a warm smile that yes, you remember that you remember a lot about love, you’ve always been surrounded.
I spent some time alive when I was very young, letting myself be loved by the fact that love exists. Alive, aghast, aglow, for all and none, an infinite being, sacred, animalian, angelic, golden with pollen. A definitive crash and silence that alters, like a tree falling across a river. The breath of life blown into rock.
Near the end of my youth, without even knowing I was in love or remembering that I was moving toward a place in love, I saw myself stop and she got in the vehicle with me.
“I’m in love with you,” she said.
I couldn’t remember if it was the first time we’d met or if we’d been getting in and out of love many times, leaving the other person alone, returning, and saying I love you, erasing each other’s memory each time we said it.
I had so many questions over time. I could tell she felt alone around me. I felt that way, too, in front of her. I got very scared and sometimes couldn’t listen, even when I was the one who came towards her asking if she remembered how it used to be, or if she ever thought it would be like this. When love came back it smiled at us for forgetting again. It had the answers to hidden questions about time, house keys, and children. It asked the questions for us, without asking. It felt like love kept us together.
I’m older now. Too old for love to matter; I know some people think that. Love no longer scares me the way it used to. Neither does she. She tells me I’m not as scary as I used to be either. At least, not in the same ways. When questions come up we wait for answers, when we can. Other times, even though it hurts, we press on and run right over them, because it’s important to keep moving, to remember that there is a place we were always meant to be, one no longer defined by what’s behind us or inside us. At least I hope so. After all this practice and so many attempts, I’d hate to see right before I died that I had misled her and myself with wishful thinking about love. It would tear at my soul if I saw her realizing something like this about me right before she died or I died. It might be wrong, but I don’t want that kind of truth, not at this point. I belong to love. I’ve given it so much. I deserve to be left alone for a while.
MATTHEW JAKUBOWSKI is a fiction writer and literary critic. His short fiction can be found in 3:AM Magazine, Great Jones Street, and gorse, among others. He has served as a fiction judge for the Best Translated Book Award and interviews editor for Asymptote. He lives in West Philadelphia.