If you’re anything like me, then maybe you’ll be caught off guard when my time comes, and you’ll forget to escape my body, thinking, Well, maybe I oughta stay with him and see if he comes around. And by then it could be too late—you trapped within my useless remains like a dolt. I hope you’re smarter than that.
When I was seven, were you floating lazily inside me—because you were only a seven year old soul—when I brushed my teeth with Nupercainal? Did you not get why they were laughing when I showed my bright white teeth to my parents after brushing with the new “toothpaste”?
Were you paying attention at all, were you ready to flee, when I touched the exposed plug under the couch groping for a ball, and then sat shaking at the kitchen table, eating my pudding and afraid to tell my parents I’d just been jolted?
When the brakes went out on the rug plant boss’s delivery van, were you ready to time your jump out of me as I raced downhill through the red-lit intersection on Vets Highway, just barely avoiding two cars coming from either side? Or had you been looking at the girls in front of the pizza place while the brakes of other cars screeched? Later, maybe you drifted quietly inside me, ho-hum about it all, while I sat in the car on an uphill grassy slope, my head on the wheel, breathing hard and thanking God my life wasn’t over at eighteen. Even if you had been ready, would you have taken me with you, or would you have stuck around with my dead body waiting for the boss’s orders—as clueless as I’d been to listen to him about the brakes only needing to be pumped every once in a while.
Of course you remember fifteen years ago, when my T’ai Chi teacher died, and her oldest student — who’d been at her bedside — told me that he briefly felt her presence in the room when she passed. A few weeks before, he said that she’d exclaimed, “I want to get out of this body!” Maybe, I sometimes think, you’d do the same for me.
But she was brilliant, and her soul was certain. You — like me, I suspect — only grope and fumble.
Last week, for instance, I forgot that my car window was closed. I tried to stick my head out like a good driver as I backed out of the driveway, and rammed my forehead against the window, sending my kids into an ice cream outing laughing fit. Later, feeling my sore head and watching the kids slurp their cones, I asked, How could you, my soul, possibly know what to do, where to go, the way my teacher’s soul did, if I don’t even know that a window is closed? I imagined myself lying dead and you stumped by walls and ceilings, or lingering like a dumbbell, eternally iffy about that brilliant beckoning light ahead.
I worry about that now sometimes. But I worried most of all ten years ago, during the week I’d been punched out on the Brooklyn Bridge. Rejected by Marion for the eighth or ninth time, forlorn along the pedestrian planks, I hadn’t seen that furious bicyclist, built like a truck, barrel toward me, or feel him bounce off me onto the wood slats. Nor did I feel his fists as he came up swinging when I ran over to help him up.
Swollen-eyed and finished with her, but still knowing somehow that she would be my wife, I escaped the city for a week at the fancy upstate hotel and glared at the waiters and waitresses who looked at my black eye and tried not to laugh when they took my order or poured more coffee. I wondered, scowling, if they saw not only the injured eye of an idiot, but his bumbling soul as well. Later, after drinking three or four mudslides, I wondered if you were even with me anymore.
Finally, in the hotel room the next night, after futilely trying to write a postcard to her — a now-or-never postcard, a she’s-the-only-girl-for-me postcard — I wondered what would have happened had I not jumped and run clear of the tipping golf cart that I’d driven sideways along a steep hill that morning? Would you have pulled me up with you to climb clear of my crushed body? Or would you have remained useless inside me, a Nothing along with me—having been too preoccupied by the hope that she’d finally say yes to soar out of me in time?