Those Last Early Hours
Three months after the doctors told me I was going to die, I met you. That all-night diner off the highway. Jack’s. One of my places when the world is sleeping, in the early hours when eyes are reddest, coffee thickest.
You looked radiant.
Remember? It was pouring. You walked in out of the rain. The place was empty but for us, the waitress and the shift cook. You asked me if you could sit in my booth, then asked my name.
“Marx,” I said. I waited for the usual question, for you to laugh and say, “Like the brothers? Or the socialist?” but you just nodded and squeezed the rain from your hair.
“I’ve seen you here before,” you said. You may have. I thought about the nights I spent alone, a prisoner in my mind while everyone else gets a reprieve. I thought about Doctor Whitehearse, the little man with a leg shorter than the other. The way he furrowed his brow and told me all that extra time awake was about to catch up to me.
I’d started having seizures, my death knell.
“I don’t sleep much," I told you. "This is one of my night places.” I molded over the corners of my reality with a lie, to keep the sharp truth from you.
The truth is I haven’t slept since I was born. Some crossed wire in my brain, some mutation. It’s why I feel so old at twenty-six. Living a block of time like that all at once, it isn’t normal. I often wonder who I’d be if I could sleep. If I hadn’t collected more waking moments than most forty-year-olds.
I didn’t say any of that to you.
“How about you,” I said. “You look like you’re coming from a party.”
“It was a ridiculous get together, and the man I went with…” She shook her head. “He’s a pig. I came here for a slice of pie. I’d rather not eat alone, if you’re sticking around.”
“I’m in no hurry to get anywhere. What was your name?”
“Amanda. But maybe tonight I’d rather be a Miranda, or an Elizabeth.”
“Oh, never an Elizabeth.”
“A Miranda then.”
“Amanda. A wonderful name.” You smiled so wide. A grin tickled at the corners of my mouth.
You ordered apple pie with a bowl of whipped cream on the side. I sipped at coffee. We talked about poetry, and the decline of modern art. Pleasant conversation, made moreso because I hadn’t expected it. I fell in love while your hair dried, while our wits danced over and through the other’s like dragonflies in the rain.
I had to pee.
“Eliot next, when I return," I said. "Prufrock and his love song.”
You winked at me. I toddled to the restroom, elated. Hummed a tune as I urinated. Washing my hands, I saw in mirror me’s face something I hadn’t since I was a boy: hope. Now, as I was dying. I think I even laughed.
A step from the door, as I was about to grab the handle, the seizure came. It threw me to the floor and beat my head against the tile, jaw clenched as blood and saliva escaped the gaps in my teeth. I fought to breathe, to keep from hitting my head on the pipes under the sink. My body writhed under a wave of electric pain, for minutes that stretched far longer.
My seizures weren’t mild, and though they’d only started three months before, the first were children compared to this monstrosity. I burned alive in the bathroom. I thanked God for the door, that obstacle between us. If you'd seen me like that I'd have lost you to pity.
When it ended I lay on the cold tile panting, sucking air. Tears of relief ran down my nose, diluting the sticky red on the floor.
I came out of the bathroom, weak and sweat-soaked, looking like I’d taken on a boxing team. Daylight was streaming through the windows. Cars outside, two customers with heads buried in plates of greasy food, one at the bar and one in the booth where I left you.
You were gone.
The waitress, seeing me, rushed over. “Oh my God, what happened to you? I thought you left!”
I waved a hand. It was too late, I wasn’t going to spend my remaining minutes on the planet explaining myself.
“The woman I was with. When did she leave? Did she say anything?”
The waitress’s mouth hung open like a bear trap. Her eyes vibrated wildly over my body. “Oh my God,” she said again.
“The woman who was here with me.”
“What? Oh. She left. But she left—” The waitress reached into her apron and pulled out a napkin smeared with blue ink. “—this for you.”
I took it from her and moved toward the door.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to call anybody, you really don’t look--”
The door closed behind me. The morning air was a warm breath on my neck. I shuffled to my car, feeling the indent of your writing on the napkin between my fingers. When I was behind the wheel with the door closed I read it.
“I couldn’t wait," you wrote. "Thank you for the companionship and the conversation.” Under that you left a number, and another scribble. “Please do call. Something different about you.”
I drove to the hospital. They scanned my head and called Dr. Whitehearse. He limped into his office and sat down, dropping printouts on his desk and giving me a look.
“I’m afraid it’s less time than we originally thought, Marx. A week at this point. Maybe less. Two more like that will kill you. One might be enough. I’d like to keep you here for observation.”
“I have a week to live and you want me to stay here?”
Whitehearse looked concerned, then gave a smile. “Of course not. I wouldn’t either. Go, get out. Live while you can. But do me a favor, would you? Don’t drive.”
I left my car at the hospital and got a ride home. I made myself a sandwich. I watched a film and decided I should get on a plane and visit my parents. Say goodbye. My fingers traced your writing. I thought about calling. To say what? Tell you I’m dying? That I want to spend my last hours with you? Pretend nothing's wrong?
I booked a flight to Florida, where my parents live. In a bag I put six changes of clothes, my toothbrush and some shampoo.
I tucked your napkin in the side pocket.
"If I live eight days," I told myself, "I’ll call you."
It’s been seven. Tomorrow I’ll hear your voice or dream it.
Either way, it will be good to finally sleep.
"Hello, is this Amanda?"
"Yeah, sorry, who’s this?"
"Apologies for calling so late. I ran into you recently, sort of a chance meeting, and fleeting. I wondered if we could have the next bit of our conversation."
"I do recognize your voice...Marx?"
"Is the evening spread out against the sky?"
"Let us go then, you and I, and to omit some lines--do I dare, disturb the universe?"
I hear you laugh, through the phone. You say, "In a minute there is time, for decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.""To be short, I am afraid."
"Eat the peach. Squeeze the universe into a ball. Above all, be glad you called."
"I am. I am."
And that is all.