I died once. Have you?
I can tell you this because I didn’t stay dead for very long; as it were, someone clumsily revived me, and interrupted me from a pleasant stroll down a mist-filled hallway towards the light at the end. As I recall, I was approaching what looked to be a big man with a paddle-scanner and a flashlight, but then of course I awoke, staring at the ceiling, back in my mortal hospital.
Since this misadventure, I have begun to imagine that heaven might be some kind of station, an airport maybe. Rather than the unimaginable, indefinite Valhalla it was imagined to be for the past 20,000 or so years, since the concept of life-after-death was invented, I wonder why we haven’t fleshed it out as some tangible place. Perhaps, the afterlife – heaven – is just another juncture between places, as much a departure point as a destination. It would have lounges, restaurants, but probably no chapels. I imagine they wouldn’t be needed anymore, because if you had actually made it this far, then your papers would have to be in order with whoever stamped your passport at immigration. I assume the man with the flashlight I saw was just a customs official waiting to perform that task for me.
My friends never seem very interested when I tell them what being dead was like. They have regarded my story with little more interest than I expressed, when at particularly boring parties, somebody, either drunk from too much cheap vodka, high on Krokodil, or both, approached me to tell about a little journal they kept, immortalizing their recent dreams. Ironically enough, when I have had an audience, however temporary, they would usually stare at me with empty eyes, perhaps wishing I was dead again.
It was during one such ill-received recollection of my hallway walk, that a friend, whom I won’t mention by name, suggested to me –- either with cruelty or foresight –- that if I was so curious about what realm the man with the flashlight was guarding, if I was so fixated on being dead, perhaps I should just do the dirty deed and off myself once and for all.
I replied sternly that I was not a suicidal man, and that when I had left this world, it was at the hand of an incompetent anesthetist, not my own. I also told my friend that there were already enough people in this part of the world who wanted me dead –- two hit-men, a mafia underboss who had commissioned the two hit-men, and one of my exes -– although that was an entirely different story. Staying alive in the face of such adversity was my polite way of telling them to go fuck themselves –- and the most effective.
On the other hand, if I died, I’d be saved the dishonor of declaring a bankruptcy, and my growing family of debt collectors ¬– Vlad, the other Vlad, Piotr, and deliciously nasty Elena –- wouldn’t be able to find me, unless they killed themselves too, the thought of which, isolated on its own, was exceedingly pleasant.
But I digress.
Have you ever had an experience and forgotten it? Forgotten nearly everything but the summary, as if the boiled dumpling called the brain reached for the case of a bootleg DVD, only to open it and find it empty? That was my near-death experience. I remembered a few key points wrapped around the empty center of other elements I’ve yet to recall. One night, while freezing in my old Eastern-bloc of flats, my dumpling-brain deep fried in a rolling boil of more alcohol than the recipe called for, these came to me at first in a haze, and then . . . as if I was there again, clear as the present.
For one, I didn’t actually walk down the hall. It seemed as though I stood still, inching towards the light, shuffling forward with an uneven, juddering pace, as if I were on one of the old moving sidewalks you can only find in airports. I looked down at my feet to investigate this further and found a battered suitcase at my feet, the last of my mortal possessions. Ladies dressed like old Aeroflot stewardesses walked past me, going the opposite direction, dressed in neat blue, figure-hugging uniforms.
The man with the security paddle and flashlight greeted me as I stepped off the moving sidewalk, which ended abruptly, sooner than I’d expected. As I tripped, pigeon-toed, onto the solid floor, I found him to be burly and intimidating, but otherwise polite. He then began to perform a little routine of three acts, well practiced with the repetition of the habitual: First, he waved the paddle around me in a smooth, orbiting arc, the burbling little device uttering suspect chirps here and there as it passed over my belt buckle and other metal in my outfit, the rivets in my jeans. Second, he asked for a passport to be produced; I complied and handed him one. Last, he held it up to my face, confirmed my identity, and then, trading his flashlight for a rubber stamp, inked my travel documents, and ushered me into the glow of the vast room that laid beyond his station.
Finally, I had been admitted to that place beyond what my memory had formerly recalled. Whether it was night or early morning, I was uncertain, but I did understand that the outdoors beyond the terminal windows were blacker than India ink, and a rainstorm of unfathomable proportions was rattling the partition, spewing it with thick sheets of water that collected in fluid globules as they sunk down the surface of the glass, to the ground. Lights of multiple colors, I supposed that of airplanes and runways, twinkled with distortion, like a constellation swirling towards the cosmic drain of a black hole.
The closer I tried to look, the less clear the image became, only to yield to the vividness of the interior of the terminal reflecting back. I could see myself, dejectedly standing there, holding my suitcase, wearing a drenched, camel-colored coat with a pop collar, a hat atop my head. Apparently, I too had been in the rain not so long ago. And then I saw him.
I call him by this nameless handle, because I knew not who he was. Like the security man from before, his size and girth suggested a heaviness I’d encountered only in nastier men; however, when he spoke a certain hospitality emanated from within, betraying my prejudgments.
“Would you join me at the lounge,” he said, turning immediately to leave, as though my wordless response and emotionless expression had been interpreted as consent.
Needless to say, I followed. Where he perched at the bar, I found a bar stool immediately adjacent. Two vessels were produced by an over-efficient bartender who looked like Andre Agassi, was presumably Armenian, and just as likely had been expecting us. “I’m to remain nameless,” my companion began, “but let’s just say I’m your guardian angel.” He grabbed his glass of clear-colored liquid, motioning for me to consume my beverage, which as it were, had been ordained to be a cup of coffee, brutally non-alcoholic in its content.
“Then what am I?” I asked.
The man who claimed to be an angel, cracked a smile and chuckled. “Well, that depends. You’re dead, but then you probably already know that.”
I grabbed my coffee, quaffing half of the cup’s hot blackness into thin air. It burned going down my gullet, which alarmed me.
At last I spoke. “How did I die this time?”
My companion looked bemused at my inquiry. “Well, nobody knows just now. I’m sure a conclusive cause will appear in some obituary any day now, but that doesn’t concern you. Tell me, do you remember how you got here?”
I answered that I did not. In actuality, this was a mix of equal parts truth to lie, for if I hadn’t remembered anything whatsoever, how else would I have written this monologue to you, the reader, up until now?
He looked relieved. “Then finish your coffee, and follow me.”
I did this, scorching my fleshy interiors once more, and handed Andre the barkeep my ceramic mug. Dismounting the stool, I saw the nameless man waiting for me to join him. He led me on into a dense crowd of people, which he parted like the Red Sea, and through them we continued to a door at one of the departure gates, which took us both from the terminal and out to the driving rain. I hadn’t had a chance to do up my coat, and the freezing cold droplets quickly dampened me and my spirit.
Surrounded by the dark, we walked briskly, leaving behind the terminal in a bank of obstructive fog that veiled it from my sights quickly, and entirely. Two cars, one in front of the other, waited for us on the tarmac with headlights ablaze and doors opens. Another being, whose features were darkened by the night and whom I couldn’t make out to be either male or female, separated me from my suitcase, before letting me into the back seat of the first car, while the man from the terminal assumed the role of driver.
We soon departed into the bleak unmapped expanse of what I assumed was a cement apron leading to a runway or to a waiting airplane. The headlights of the car behind struck the rearview mirror of ours, illuminated a horizontal swath of my driver’s face, giving his eyes, bluer than ice in winter, an ethereal glow which unnerved me.
“Are you frightened of this?” he asked me, as though able to read my thoughts.
“I just want to know if I’m really dead,” I said, raising my voice against the metallic sound of the rain pounding against the roof, drowning out my syllables.
To this there was no response. I’m glad, I suppose, for I wasn’t sure how I’d react if given an answer that tilted in either direction.
Nearly as soon as the ride had begun, it was over. The car behind us pulled up alongside, and both cars neatly rolled to a halt, facing a small white passenger jet washed clean by the rain. I stayed seated as my companion left the car, fetched my suitcase, and boarded the aircraft. Impulsively, I reached for the dome-light, switched it on, and flooded the interior with the dim, yellow light of a bulb about to burn out. I found a pocketbook in my coat, and a disposable Bic pen that, with a dry nib, hesitantly inked my words onto the paper.
Truly, I have no idea what’s going on, or who these people are. Most frighteningly, I do not know whether I’m alive or dead; neither can I be sure whether this realm is reality or a figment of my imagination.
I think that –- hold on, I just looked up to the airplane. There’s someone at the top of the steps, standing inside the cabin, looking out. I think they’ve seen the light inside the car. They are now descending the steps, slowly drawing closer to the car. It’s the driver. He looks displeased.
I feel nauseated, a little cold and very much helpless. I’m about to switch out the dome-light, which will plunge the interior of the car into darkness, and I will be able to write no more. Before I do that, I will leave the notepad behind in the door of the car, so that someone might find it, only not the man who calls himself my guardian angel, who has come to frighten me.
I’m reaching for the switch now.