The Y is around the corner from his architectural firm, and I would see Les in the pool every weekday from 1:30-2:30 p.m. That’s why, this fall, I thought it odd when he wasn’t there for a whole week.
Eating in the middle of the day made him sleepy, he said, so he forfeited lunch for ten laps of freestyle followed by ten laps each of the back, breast, and sidestrokes. When he was done, he’d move to the multipurpose lane and complete a series of water exercises.
I knew Les was almost finished with his routine—not when the wall clock showed 2:20—but when I saw him standing in the shallow end of the multipurpose lane staring straight ahead at the nine-foot end, deep in concentration. He’d shake out his arms, extend them forward, take in a deep breath, and push off from the pool’s edge, slithering along the bottom like a flounder, until he reached the opposite end. Seventy-two yards. All on one breath!
Then he’d flip underwater and sprint freestyle back to the shallow end. Done. He’d hop out, spot me in a lane doing the backstroke, and wave goodbye.
After the second and third weeks passed and still no Les, I worried that something had happened to him, but my pool friends were optimistic saying maybe he was on vacation or swimming at a different time.
When I didn’t see Les for a month, I inquired at Membership Services and was told his account had recently been closed. I felt a pit in my stomach. Les would never have done this. He loved swimming and was committed to his routine. Something must have happened. Maybe he had an accident while riding his bike and was in the hospital, I thought.
A few days later, while we were having our snacks in the lounge after our swim, my friend Gayle told me she had seen an announcement about Les’ death on a GoFundMe page a group of his friends had arranged to help his wife. She was looking to fund a memorial bench in a neighborhood park where Les had spent a lot of time.
“What?” I said, covering my mouth with my hands. “He died?”
“A month ago, on a Sunday,” Gayle said. “He was upstate collecting leaves and sorting them on the hood of his car. Had an aneurysm and collapsed. That was it.”
“I can’t believe it,” I said. “Sixty years old. Gone. Such a great guy. Always smiling. Met him when I became a member here, three years ago. Every day, first thing I did when I got into the pool was look around to see which lane Les was swimming in. It felt good to know he was there, somewhere nearby. I’m going to miss him.”
When I got home that night, my husband was on the couch watching the news. I told him what Gayle had said.
“Sorry to hear that,” Kevin said. “I know you were fond of him. What happened?”
“Had an aneurysm. Seemed so healthy. Certainly got a lot of exercise. In addition to swimming, he told me he rode his bike on weekends. A vegetarian. Didn’t smoke. Liked to help people. He’s the one who told me about putting diluted baby shampoo on my goggles to keep them from fogging up. Showed me pictures of the buildings he designed. Highly creative guy.”
I thought back to one of the last times I’d seen Les and to the conversation we’d had about a website he had visited. He had just finished his seventy-two-yard underwater glide, and I was standing in my lane giving him a thumbs up. Told him he was in great shape to be able to swim the length of the pool on one breath and that he was probably going to live a long time.
He laughed. “Not according to When Will I Die.com,” he said, jumping out of the pool, slipping into his alligator green Crocs and walking towards the men’s locker room. When he got to the door, he turned around. “Have a good afternoon,” he said. “See you tomorrow.”
“I know you think I’m just a bone-headed scientist who works with data, but really, you don’t think he believed that stuff, do you?” Kevin asked.
“I don’t know. We didn’t get a chance to talk about it. It’s so creepy. I wonder what compelled him to go to the website. Maybe he had just found out he had an incurable disease and went to the site out of desperation in hopes of learning how much time he had left.”
“He could have just been surfing the web and stumbled upon the site,” Kevin said. “Was curious about what he might find out, so he entered it. Or perhaps a friend told him who’d been excited after learning that he would live to be at least ninety.”
“He must have been shocked when he learned his life would be cut short,” I said.
“Of course. Who wouldn’t be?”
“Wonder if the site gave him a specific date he’d die, or if it just reported that his time was limited?” I asked.
“I can’t imagine he’d believe it,” Kevin said.
“He must have because he mentioned it. Can’t imagine what it must have felt like to think he was going to die soon, and there was nothing he could do to change that.”
“It’s likely that Les’ death was sheer coincidence,” Kevin said. “With aneurysms, often they’re no symptoms. Besides, a website can’t predict how long a person will live. It’s not science, for heaven’s sake.”
“I’m curious, Kevin. I’d like to know if I’m going to live a long life. Maybe I’ll check it out.”
Kevin shook his head. “Don’t know if that’s a good idea. You know how you can go overboard when you’re curious about something.”
I turned away for a moment and thought about what Kevin had said. He was right. I was always a curious child, but over time, my healthy curiosity became tainted with dread that something bad would happen if I acted on it. The fear probably originated in early childhood after listening to “Bluebeard,” the Brothers Grimm fairy tale that my mother read to me, and the warning she added when she finished.
“Remember what happened to Bluebeard’s wife when she couldn’t control herself and opened the room she was forbidden to enter,” my mother cautioned. “She saw all the king’s former wives hanging from nooses and knew she was going to die, too.”
Kevin looked over at me and threw up his arms. “Do whatever you want. Let me know if you feel yourself being pulled to the other side,” he said, chuckling softly.
During the next few days, I couldn’t stop talking to Kevin about the site. Did he think it was purely informative or interactive? What did it ask of its visitors? By myself, I kept wondering what had Les been thinking when he learned he didn’t have much more time on this Earth? Did he believe what the site said, or dismiss it as hogwash? Maybe his death really was just a coincidence.
I thought of how my mother always said she was living on borrowed time. She had died of terminal breast cancer and had lived with the disease for thirteen years. Can’t fathom what she went through. What did she think about each day as she rode the subway to work? That this week could be her last? Did she feel that with each birthday and New Year she was that much closer to her death?
No matter how hard I tried to imagine the way I might feel if I knew I was going to die momentarily, I couldn’t manage to access those feelings. If I had a week or a month, how could I deal with knowing that?
Kevin said my talk was driving him crazy. “If you’re so interested in finding out what the site looks like and in learning your fate, then go do it,” he said dismissively. “Log on.”
I walked into the study, turned on the floor lamp, and sat down at the computer. My annual physical was a week ago, I reminded myself. My health is excellent. I have nothing to worry about. In my head, I heard my mother’s voice, soft, but persistent. “Don’t be like Bluebeard’s wife.”
I took in a deep breath and exhaled. My palms were sweaty. My mother’s voice got louder and louder, “SOMETHING BAD WILL HAPPEN.”
I felt under the monitor for the button and turned on the computer. When my home screen appeared, I typed the name of the website and waited. The screen turned a deep, rich, purplish-black and the name of the site popped up.
“Make sure your sound is on,” the prompt said.
I checked. The volume was up. The sound was eerie, and it reminded me of the tune from The Twilight Zone. My heart raced. My head pounded.
“Welcome, Elizabeth,” boomed a deep male voice.
How did someone know my name? I didn’t provide any personal information.
“You are here because you want to know your fate and how long you will live,” the voice continued. “The information I must impart to you is not good. Your time is limited. You will be disappointed.”
“Just tell me,” I shouted.
“You will depart this world in three days. Your death will be painless. You will die in your sleep. Don’t worry. Your husband will be okay. You will see your grandparents, parents, and your siblings who died before you were born. They are looking forward to seeing you. Your grandmother is smiling. Three days. Make the best of them. Remember, you only live on Earth once.” The screen instantly turned black, and the voice said “Goodbye.”
I pushed myself away from the computer and remained in the chair, unable to move.
After a few minutes, I stood up and walked into the living room. Kevin was sitting on the couch reading the newspaper, our orange cat, Marmalade, in his lap.
“Honey, you’re pale,” he said. “What happened?”
I took his paper, put it on the coffee table, and sat down next to him. “I went to the site. I’m going to die in three days.”
“Come on, Liz. You don’t learn you’re going to die from a website. What formula did it use to come to this conclusion? It’s a hoax. Pure quackery.”
“I’m scared, Kevin. I don’t want to leave you. And my novel, I want to finish it.”
Kevin put his arm around me and pulled me close. “You’re not going anywhere. Dr. Stevens said you’re in excellent health. Her findings were based on scientific results—blood tests, heart sounds, X-rays. Hard evidence, not parapsychology.”
“When Will I Die.com begs to differ. The site said Les wasn’t going to live long, and then he passed, shortly thereafter.”
“I don’t know what Les learned, but I don’t believe anything the website told him, and I don’t believe you have only three days. Why are you letting what a website says cloud your better judgement?”
“Because just maybe the site is right. What if it can predict our deaths?”
“Tomorrow is Saturday. I’ll stay home from the lab on Monday. We’ll face this craziness together.”
I snuggled close to Kevin and put my arm across his stomach. Marmalade cuddled up against my hip. I told Kevin I would always love him, that he was the most important person in my life. We kissed. Again, and again. And we made love, right there on the couch. Didn’t want to stop. I wanted to keep the physical connection going for as long as possible.
That night, I tossed and turned. I’d read about people who had briefly been to the other side and had spoken highly of a pastoral place and loved ones welcoming them. But I was petrified to depart this world, to leave behind the surroundings and people I know. “I won’t go. You can’t make me,” I said to the night like a two-year-old.
I must have finally dozed off for a bit in the early morning because when Kevin came in at 7 a.m. and kissed me, I awakened instantly. He was standing at the head of our bed in his pajamas, holding a mug of coffee.
“Scrambled eggs and toast. No coffee. I’m edgy enough.” I sat up in bed and tried to orientate myself, but I was in a fog, caught somewhere between here and another place, as if I had awakened from a nuclear disaster and there was no semblance of life around me. I imagined wandering aimlessly amidst shriveled up plants and flowers, all covered in a dusty gray ash.
Kevin called but I didn’t hear him. After the third call, he entered the room and shook me, trying to break my trance.
“Come on, Liz. Eat your food while it’s hot,” he said, setting my breakfast on a chair nearby and sitting alongside me on the bed. I sat up and Kevin brought a forkful of eggs to my mouth.
I passed the whole day in bed, drifting back and forth into a light sleep. I had so much I wanted to remember. In my mind’s eye, snippets from earlier, happy times passed before me. Childhood summers on Cape Cod. Swimming, fishing, picking blueberries. Riding my red Schwinn bike. My first boyfriend, Randy. Love notes left between the pages of my textbooks. Saturday nights. Learning to Tango with Kevin. My special red shoes. Our honeymoon. The gondola ride in Venice.
At some point, I let out a shrill cry and sat up.
Kevin came running.
Kevin hugged me, and I wrapped my arms around his neck, clutching him tightly, my nails digging into his skin.
“Liz, you’re not going to die,” he said.
“How do you know that? Two days. That may be all I have. Then I’m gone. My soul will depart this body, and I’ll be alone somewhere where no one and nothing is recognizable.”
“You’re frightening me,” Kevin said. “In the morning, I’m going to call Dr. Stevens. Maybe she can give you something to help you relax.”
“I’m not going to take anything that will blur my thinking and dull my feelings. I want to be fully alert during the upcoming days.”
“Okay. Whatever you want. Let’s go to sleep,” Kevin said. He kissed me goodnight and turned off the light.
“No,” I yell. I saw it as a child. Death visits in the darkness. Stands high above me and hovers. “Leave the light on.”
When I awakened the next morning at 7 a.m., Kevin was sound asleep. I tiptoed into the kitchen and made tea, then sat in the living room in the recliner overlooking the street and watched the activity below. The twenty-four-hour diner was busy with people from the neighborhood and employees from the nursing home up the street. Four people in hospital uniforms waited at the bus stop, coffee cups in hand.
I decided not to spend another precious day in bed and went into the bedroom to dress. Packed lunch, the draft of my novel, a dozen sharpened pencils, and my cell phone. Left a note for Kevin, so he wouldn’t freak out wondering where I was and kissed his forehead before I left.
I walked the brownstone lined streets to Lawrence Park a few blocks from my apartment. The day was chilly, but there were many people at the park this Sunday morning. Nilda, the Parks Department gardener, was putting mulch around the rose beds. She waved and told me her first grandchild, Mathew David, would be born in less than two weeks. I’ve known Nilda for ten years and wished that I’d have time to knit him something special. Reminded myself to buy a gift on my way home.
I sat on a bench in the sun, thrust my head back and looked up at the trees which were now slowly dropping their leaves as they prepared for the cold weather. I remembered many days during the past ten years when I came here to clear my mind, to read, and to people watch.
I opened my notebook and reread the last chapters I wrote recently. Took out a pencil and began editing. The muses were with me today and kept me focused, not allowing any interruptions or diversions. Read without looking up, and when I finally glanced at my watch, it was 2 p.m. Four hours had passed. Nilda was leaving. I waved goodbye.
Ate my turkey and provolone sandwich and the peach I brought, savoring each bite as if I were tasting these foods for the first time and then edited for another two hours. I’d never worked this much in one sitting before, but I wanted it left right, just in case. I was satisfied with my changes and grateful I had been granted enough time to complete my work.
On my way home, a homeless man confronted me and asked for money. Said he was hungry. I reached into my pocket and removed bills and some coins. A ten, a five, three ones and twenty-seven cents. Gave him everything.
“Thanks, lady,” he said, smiling broadly and exposing his decayed teeth. “My mama taught me not to spend all my money in one place. Gonna buy some hot chicken and rice for tonight and save the rest for tomorrow and the next day. Thanks a lot.”
“God bless you, sir,” I said and continued walking.
When I opened the door to our apartment, Kevin jumped up from the couch and gave me a big hug. “I’ve missed you,” he said. “Hope you had a good day.”
“I did. Went to the park, edited my novel, and did a lot of reflecting. Called a few people and made amends. Have a newfound appreciation for the trees, the people, and the dogs I saw. Even my sandwich had a fresh, new taste. How about you?”
“My paper was missing the Book Review and The Week in Review, the two sections I read first. The bathroom sink was clogged again, and my sneaker laces tore, so I had to play tennis in my shoes.”
“I’m sorry. Other residents will throw out sections of the paper later tonight. I’ll check the recycle bins in the basement after dinner. Playing tennis in your shoes will give you something to talk about.”
I awakened Monday morning at 8 a.m. and went into the living room. Kevin told me he called the lab, said he wouldn’t be in today, and asked about my plans.
“Going to stay home,” I said. “Have some projects I want to work on.”
“Okay, honey. I’ll be in the study. Shout if you need me.”
I had some cereal and juice and then went into the bedroom. Took out my guide to agents and publishers and compiled a list of potential contacts for my novel. When I finished, the clock on my nightstand showed 11:02 a.m. Time was passing quickly. By this time tonight, I may be deceased. How will I go? I wondered. A cardiac arrest? Doctors were able to revive my grandmother after her first arrest, but they couldn’t when she had the second one, minutes later. An unexplained grand mal seizure? Whatever happens, I hope it’s quick and painless and I go straight to Heaven. Was I good enough to go there? Surely, I could have been a better person. Cheating on a history test in college. Shoplifting from Bloomingdale’s. Having an affair with my best friend’s husband, early in my marriage. That should be the one to get me in trouble.
Kevin called me to the kitchen for lunch. Tuna fish sandwiches and tea.
“How’s it going?” he asked.
“I made a list of possible agents for you to contact. You’re going to have to sell my novel, you know.”
“I know,” Kevin said, smiling. “I’ll do my best.”
Shortly after lunch, I realized I hadn’t yet cooked the food I wanted to leave for Kevin. Poor guy can only make eggs and tuna salad. Prepared several of his favorite dishes—stuffed peppers, lasagna, baked salmon in mustard sauce, chili, and mushroom barley soup.
Then I made mussels with clam sauce over linguini and salad for our last dinner together, and when we finished, we made love. I told Kevin how happy he’d made me over the years and made him promise he would consider marriage if he met another woman and fell in love. I opened the freezer and showed him the food, all individually wrapped and labeled.
“This should last you for a few months until you learn how to cook,” I told him.
Kevin gave me a look. “Really, Liz?” he asked.
I worked late into the night making Thanksgiving cards for the elderly patients in our neighborhood nursing home and inspirational cards for the cancer patients at Sloan-Kettering. I don’t know when I went to bed, but when I awakened, it was 11:00 a.m.
Kevin heard me stir and came into the bedroom with a cup of coffee.
“Good morning, my love. It’s Tuesday and you’re still here,” he said, handing me the coffee.
“Thanks, honey. Can’t believe I’m alive.”
“Very much so.”
“Surprised I was able to sleep. According to the website, I was supposed to die during the night. I had nightmares of Bluebeard’s wife opening the forbidden room and seeing the bodies of her husband’s previous wives. Then, just now, before I awoke, the weirdest thing happened. I dreamt I was in the castle, and instead of wives hanging from nooses, I opened the door to an explosion of color. Lots of blues and greens in different hues. Rich red, lush purple. Bold strokes of magenta, turquoise, lemon yellow, and aqua. Splashes of orange, okra, pink and violet. And hanging from the ceiling, I saw an oversized fountain pen filled with red ink.”
“Sounds beautiful,” Kevin said. “You know, color is a sign of creativity. You’re going to have plenty of time to pitch your book and to write many more.”
“I hope so. Wish my mother would have seen the inside of the room I opened. Maybe then she wouldn’t have brought such grey-colored fear into both our lives.”