At Death’s Door
When Jonathan and I were at the Riverside county fair about thirty years ago, I promised him I would kill myself if he died first. I’m not going to jump off a bridge or anything. Assisted death residences are popular now, and I found Death’s Door online. They exist for anyone who wishes to die, for any reason, on her own terms. Jonathan died two weeks ago, and it’s time for me to die.
Death’s Door is housed in buildings with red clay tile roofs, desert pink walls, arched windows, cacti and bougainvillea, a burbling fountain, and large portico as though for valet parking at the Ritz Carlton. Through a hedge I see a pool with a raucous bunch, seemingly trying to drown each other. I hear “Marco,” “polo,” and “good lord, Tyler, you’re cheating.”
While I wait for the director to give me a tour, I sit in a lobby that looks like a boutique hotel: white linen couches, concrete coffee table, chandeliers apparently from Versailles, tall vases with seasonal flowers the size of a Rose Parade float. Tasteful people who look like they should be in a TV commercial for sparkling wine stand in groups of two and three, probably having tasteful conversations.
A tall woman in her fifties approaches me. She wears a trim mauve pantsuit, gray pumps, and gold chain. She extends a hand and gives a firm handshake. “My name is Ophelia Valdis. Welcome to Death’s Door.”
“Thank you. Portia Halstrom.”
“I will give you a tour and introduce you to our director. I understand you would like assistance with your death.” She sounds as though she’s asking me if I want my teeth cleaned. “Why don’t we talk as I show you the residence? We’ll be walking through the Olympus wing. This is our library.”
It is filled with computers and actual books along the walls. I notice Divine Comedy is the “Librarian’s Weekly Choice.”
“This is our café. Made to order hamburgers, salads, waffles, that sort of thing. We also have a formal dining room and a cafeteria in the Nirvana wing.”
The clatter of people and dishes. I smell bacon and coffee.
“Residents must be at least twenty-one and have the ability to manage their affairs legally. We do not allow a third party to make decisions about death unless we have a court order. When you’re approved, you enter into a contract where you may live here for a maximum of twenty-four months.” She recites the requirements with authority as if she were a docent at the Museum of Modern Art. “Of course, you have the option to leave any time before the end of two years. We do provide palliative care for fatally ill residents. Do you suffer from a fatal illness?”
“Uh, no. I’m healthy. Two years?”
“Here is our movie theater. We have an arrangement with Thantos Theatres for first-run movies, and we have older films, too.”
Two heavy gold doors open to plush red chairs. Posters for “Death to Smoochy” and “Death Becomes Her” are advertised in the lobby behind Plexiglas. Jonathan and I had seen “Smoochy.” He laughed so hard I thought he was going to snort popcorn out his nose.
People walk by and greet Ophelia, and she introduces me. A couple of people give me a knowing smile, but I don’t know for what. A group of five men wound up like Slinkys walks by.
“Jim’s Event is tonight.” She points her head toward one of the men. “He chose a stag night with steaks, strippers, and slot machines.”
We continue on our way with a wall of glass on the left that runs the length of the hall, inside of which is an atrium filled with black calla lilies and on the right doors with numbers and people’s names on small placards. Blue carpet. The walls are covered in mauve and gold wallpaper. Ophelia blends in with the walls.
“Two years for me?” I ask.
“Let’s look at some model apartments. This is our studio. Let’s have a look.”
Clearly, I am not going to get an answer to my question. As I walk through the door I see that the gold designs on the wallpaper are actually depictions from Paradise Lost.
“Yes, we imbue the surroundings with references to death to create an atmosphere that normalizes it. Okay, here we have—”
Ophelia continues to tell me the features of the apartment, but I don’t listen. I know I’m making the right decision. I either leave my daughter Bethany behind or spend the rest of my life reliving Jonathan’s death and living without him. Bethany is furious with me for even thinking about assisted death. I don’t think she understands how badly I miss her father.
“Now we’ll find Dr. Ammit, the director of our residence.”
It seems we have walked through miles of hallways. Large windows let in streamers of sunlight that rest on the walls opposite. I won’t look at the wallpaper. Yes, I am afraid of death. But it’s necessary. I promised I would die. We both promised. We walk through double doors and stand at the back of an auditorium with stadium tiers. At the front of the room sits a stage with heavy purple velvet curtains. A lectern stands at the foot of the stage.
“We use this room for classes, speakers, plays, musicals, and concerts put on by residents or outside companies. We’ve got a group rehearsing ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ now. Do you act, sing, like music?”
“I don’t act or sing. I love classical music. Tchaikovsky, Abramsky. The Russians,” I say as I follow Ophelia down the steps to the stage.
“Morton, are you here?” she calls out to the room.
“Yes, I’m here. One minute.” A man’s head emerges from behind the curtain. He is sixtyish, has minimal hair the color of dust, an enormous smile and black round glasses. Woody Allen without the existential melancholia.
Ophelia talks to his head. “Come meet our prospective resident Portia.”
He flings open the curtains. “Ta-da.” He positively bellows. He jumps down from the stage, walks to us, takes my hand in his and kisses it. He wears a Hawaiian shirt with waterskiing reindeer and purple Nike high tops. Quite a lively man. “Hello, my dear. Dr. Morton Ammit. Why don’t you sit here and we’ll talk.”
He points to a seat in the front row. Ophelia sits next to me.
“What can I tell you about us?” he asks, as he stands with his hands on top of his head.
“The two-year rule?”
“Ah, yes. Residents come here with intentions to die.” He points a finger toward the ceiling. “However, after we had been open a few years, some residents had not gone through Death’s Door. They had changed their minds or were afraid, but they didn’t leave. We can’t keep residents here forever. Forever!” He giggles. “We have such a high demand for apartments. Two years. That’s long enough to reach a final decision. During that period, a resident can opt to die any time, but if he hasn’t gone into the end zone before the deadline, clekkk—” He draws his finger across his neck.
I clutch my throat. “Uhk.”
Ophelia looks at me and shakes her head. “Morton, please. Residents can leave any time before they go through Death’s Door.”
“They go through a door and then they’re dead?” I ask.
“Yes, dear. That’s why we’re here. To provide a badly needed service. Some of our residents are older. They feel they are at the end of their lives. Others have given up on life, but don’t want to commit suicide. And then we have our ill residents. Our residents all have their reasons. Like you for instance. You’re still young, healthy.”
He rubs his hands together, rocks back and forth. “Residents pick a date to die, then plan their last day, their Event. They might want to watch their favorite movie with their friends, followed by a dinner of their favorite meal, and then sudden death playoffs of the PGA tour. No, it’s not like prisoners on death row.” He giggles again. He’s having fun—talking about dying like it’s a theme park action ride.
“It might be meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and mango cheesecake,” Ophelia says. She is infatuated with alliteration.
My head hurts. I don’t have a headache. My entire head hurts. Going on the cruise my friend Delilah suggested suddenly seems like a good idea. Except my heart’s pain will not go away on a ship with 1,500 couples. Jonathan and I took cruises to Alaska, through the Panama Canal, Mexico. He surprised me with a cruise to the Mediterranean. He brought home pizza and Greek salad and told me to guess my surprise. I thought he had found a new deli. I will never go on a cruise without him.
I lost friends after Jonathan died. I became the extra woman even before he died. For the past couple of weeks, the only time I see my former pals is when they drop off tuna casseroles or coffee cakes. They all say, “I don’t want to bother you. You need your rest.” I don’t need rest. I need the stability, lovemaking, and surprises of my marriage. I am sucked into a vacuum of misery.
“This is a lot to take in,” Ammit says. “When you schedule your Death Date, we ask if you want a church, temple, synagogue, whatever service or celebration is appropriate before you go through Death’s Door —Episcopalian is lovely. Or you can forego a service. Tell your family there will be no body afterward to bury or cremate.”
“I don’t want a funeral. I don’t like rituals. When it’s over, it’s over.”
“But your family?”
“My family’s Catholic. I left the church in high school. My parents are both dead. Since I told the rest of my family, they’ve given up on me. Cut off contact. They say I’m committing a mortal sin. My daughter Bethany’s pretty angry, traumatized really. I don’t have a choice. I made a promise.” As I talk my voice sounds uncertain. Dr. Ammit and Ophelia appear to be listening to me without judgment. “Exactly how do we die? Do you inject us, give us something to drink?”
Dr. Ammit places his hands on my shoulders. “Heavens. We don’t kill you. I’m not Dr. Kevorkian. You go through your Door, that’s it. Show’s over. Fat lady sings.”
“I think Portia has the general idea.” Ophelia fidgets in her seat.
“All right, you choose your Door: Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, Pagan, Confucian, Tao,” Dr. Ammit says. “Norse, but we don’t allow human sacrifices.” He looks at Ophelia with his head cocked to one side like a parakeet.
“New Thought, Peyote Way,” Ophelia says.
“That’s right. A few others. We can accommodate other sub-groups like Southern Baptist, though they’re a spooky lot,” Dr. Ammit says.
“I didn’t realize I had to be religious to die here. I’m not religious at all. Or spiritual.” When she was young, Bethany went to church with my sister, and I wasn’t surprised when she asked to be baptized Catholic when she turned twelve. Jonathan and I went to church on Christmas, our one concession to her.
“Don’t worry, dear. We have Doors for non-religious residents.” Dr. Ammit counts on his fingers. “Agnostic, Atheist, Secular Humanism, Apatheism.”
“What’s that last one?” I ask.
“Complete indifference to religion.” He makes a tent of his fingers.
“That’s me,” I say, although I want to believe Jonathan’s waiting for me somewhere in some form. My throat tightens and tears run down my cheeks. “I’m sorry.”
“Completely understandable.” Ophelia says. “Let’s continue our walk.”
Dr. Ammit kisses my hand again and we leave him in the auditorium.
“I want to point out the chapel, craft room, and cafeteria.”
We walk down another long hallway that dead-ends at a set of white doors with the words “RESTRICTED ACCESS” and a smiling skull in red. On the wall adjacent is a retina scanner.
“This is where death occurs,” Ophelia says with a hushed voice.
“Tell me about this.”
“No. The only people who know about the Door Room are Dr. Ammit and his assistant Bella. They make the atmosphere appropriate for your relationship with death—”
“My what?” I interrupt her.
“They are soothing, jolly, compassionate, serene, macabre, whatever you need.”
“Dr. Ammit is so happy, as though he’s a vaudeville act.”
“He takes each person’s death seriously. But he also wants to take away the fear.”
We reverse our path. Ophelia invites me into her office and points toward a pale blue tufted love seat, where I sit down. She sits at her desk with a stack of papers in front of her. We go through background and credit information.
“Rent is $2,500 a month, including all meals. Then $3,000 for Death’s Door procedure. Your Event will be extra, with the cost based on your choices. Financing is available.” As though I were putting my death on layaway. Then we talk about my plan to die.
“I want apatheism.”
“Are you sure?”
“Absolutely. It’s just difficult saying this stuff out loud.”
“Do you have a date in mind?”
“Not yet. I’m thinking about everything I learned today, digesting the significance of my decision, still reeling from Jonathan’s death, and I’ve got a daughter in emotional free fall.”
“How did he die?”
“Pancreatic cancer. One day we’re playing golf and a month later—” I feel the weight of each word as it leaves my mouth.
“Sometimes when people grieve, they make rash decisions.”
“I know I’m emotional right now, but I know what I want.”
One Saturday night when we were in college Jonathan and I went into the funhouse at the county fair. One mirror made him elongated and me squat. He laughed and pointed at our reflections.
“I’m going to die, I’m so fat,” I said as I held in my stomach.
“Don’t say that. Don’t even tease about it. I couldn’t live without you, babe,” he said.
“If you die first, I’ll have a cabana boy the next day.”
“Seriously. I can’t imagine you with anyone else.”
“Jeez, I was just kidding.”
“We’ve never talked about dying,” he said. “Let’s promise, one of us goes, the other one goes.”
I didn’t hesitate. “Promise.”
“How would you do it?” he asked.
“I don’t know. We never had a conversation like this before today.”
“Do you want to take some time to think about it?” He continued walking through the maze of mirrors and glass. I followed.
“I think we have made a good decision. I was just thinking about our families. Don’t you think they would be devastated losing both of us?” We planned not to have children, so that wouldn’t be a factor.
“I understand if you want to decide later.”
“No, no. I know I wouldn’t want to live if it had to be without you. You are more important to me than my family. But what do you think happens when we die? Do you think there is a hereafter?”
“Nah, I think you get this life, and that’s it. What about you?”
“I think I agree with you. Yeah, I do.” My family was Catholic, but I was a fallen-away sinner. I couldn’t get past the ritual of the services and the parochial beliefs on birth control. I loved Jonathan so completely that it was easy to believe what he believed.
We stopped walking. As we stood in front of mirrors, our embrace reflected off other mirrors to infinity.
The meeting with Ophelia and Dr. Ammit was eight months ago. I was approved, sold the house I loved for eighteen years, and moved into my apartment. When I read or see something interesting, I think “I have to tell Jonathan about this.” I think of him constantly. I think my situation is like the fatally ill residents. I feel sick inside. Although I wanted to to die right away, I wait because of Bethany. I hope she’ll come around.
I don’t want to sit in my apartment alone, so I make new friends. I meet a resident named Vida after the movie “Dead Island,” and we become friends. She has had three strokes and she’s losing cognitive function. I hesitate to talk to her about Bethany and Jonathan beyond the basics, because there are few human words to express my feelings. We meet this morning in the chapel, not for celestial solace, but because it’s a beautiful setting. Light yellow walls with nondenominational statuary. Soft light filtering gold and copper through stained glass windows. We have sixteen-ounce coffee mugs. I’m no longer worried about caffeine.
“How are your headaches?” I ask.
“The same, like sometimes I can’t see. But I am on delicious painkillers. It’s all good.”
“Have you heard anything about the Door Room?”
“If a person gets in there and changes their mind, it’s too late. Like nobody comes back from the Door Room. Don’t you think you could, you know, get beyond Jonathan’s death?”
“Vida, I don’t know if I can say—”
She is quiet and minutes pass. “Do you want to try?”
I begin. “I’ve loved him since I was ten years old. We lived in the same neighborhood, played softball together.” I can see us in the parking lot at an abandoned church, running the bases we drew on the asphalt in green paint. He was a good shortstop. I always wound up in right field. Jonathan said I threw like a girl, which seemed obvious to me. “We went to school together all through elementary and junior high. In high school we went together. When we got our senior rings, we never wore our own. He wore mine on his pinkie—” I wiggle my hand and then quiet it with my other hand. “Our universities were both in Boston—”
“Oh yeah. Where’d you go?”
“I went to Wellesley, and he went to MIT.”
“Small world. I went to Boston College. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Go on.”
“We got engaged when we graduated, married a month later by a justice of the peace in Santa Cruz. Had Bethany six months later. She was a complete surprise and—” I wrap my arms around myself, and Vida pats my shoulder.
“If you don’t want to say more, I understand,” she says, although she leans her head toward me.
“We hadn’t planned to have children. We knew it was just the two of us. Do you want me to stop? I can stop.” Can I? It seems I am crowding my entire life into a slide show.
She shakes her head “no.”
“It was always Jonathan and me.” I hold up two fingers together. “Like this. We celebrated our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary five months before he died. We went to Vienna and saw Don Giovanni at the Staatsoper. We were going to do so much more.” I lay my forehead on my arms that rest on the bench in front of me. “For thirty-four years he held my hand, remembered our anniversary, birthdays. One Valentine’s Day he gave me a bouquet of celery and carrots tied together with a red satin ribbon, an uncooked pork roast, and a cookbook. He said my valentine to him would be if I started cooking.”
“Aww, that’s cute. Did you learn to cook?”
“Yes.” My throat does an approximation of a laugh. “He cooked the pork roast, and then we took a French cooking class. Oh, god.” Tears give me no peace. “I know I’m being cruel to Bethany, but I don’t have a choice.”
“Don’t you think you should live for her?”
I feel a rainstorm on my face, and I gulp for air. “I’ve thought about it until my head spins. See, I don’t think she likes me, not just because I choose to die. She just doesn’t.” I sit back and feel the hardness of the bench against my spine.
Vida puts her arms around my shoulders. “It’ll be over soon.”
I surrender to her hug and clutch Jonathan’s wedding ring that I wear on a chain around my neck.
I’ve learned not to get too attached to residents because they’re soon gone. I join the River Styx pool volleyball team. Morbid name, but that’s the spirit here. Our team isn’t very good, because teammates change so often. Karaoke’s popular here. It’s not Rachmaninoff and the music is god awful, but it’s a couple of hours I don’t have to think. I go to four Events for departing residents. That’s what they’re called: “departing,” as though they were leaving out of LAX on a flight to Yazoo City, Mississippi, with two connections, which, as I think about it, is similar to death.
Mike wants a Viking sendoff, so we buy a radio-controlled sailboat, fill it with newspaper and a Ken doll. We set the newspaper on fire and send the boat to the middle of a pond at the nearby Gramercy park. A park security guard busts us. Of course, Mike’s Event includes the consumption of vast amounts of alcohol, so concentrated efforts to stand up straight lead to much giggling and snorting. Mike grabs onto Leon with the intention of steadying both of them, but he only succeeds at causing both of them to fall on the duck poop-filled grass.
Bethany visits me for the first time since I moved to Death’s Door, and we go to lunch. Since her father’s death, she has been uniformly busy when I’ve asked her to meet for dinner or the movies.
At Manhattan Deli we order food to give us time to avoid landmines. We talk about nothing. Her beef barley soup sits untouched, while I devour lox and bagels with a triple chocolate cheesecake chaser. I can eat anything I want with no fear of cellulite or heart disease.
“Beth, I’ve chosen the date for my death,” I say as I chew on the cream-cheesed bagel. “It will be on my birthday. I think it’s a nice symmetry.”
She rests her elbows on the table, hides her face with her hands, and sobs. “How can you do this to yourself? You’ll be in hell fire for all eternity.” Her voice is muffled. “You want me to grieve for both of you? I miss Dad, too, but I’m not going to die over it.”
Although my initial reaction is to smack her, I stroke her hair. She pulls away from me. Hurt, I take the pin out of my verbal grenade and toss it. “Grieve for me? Honestly, I don’t know why you’re so upset. You haven’t cared whether I’m alive or dead since you went to college. I have to talk to your father to find out how you are. I’ve been here for months and you’ve been too busy to see me.” Uncertainty about leaving her is tainted by my feelings of abandonment.
“You weren’t interested in me. All you wanted was Dad. You always chose him.” This is a shopworn allegation.
“Beth, he’s my husband. I didn’t choose him over you.” That’s a lie.
“Fine. Whatever you say.” She stands, drops her napkin in her soup, and leaves.
I am guilty of choosing death, the only way to lose all feelings for my dead husband, rather than being a part of the life of my daughter. I pray I’m making the right decision.
I see Dr. Ammit in the craft room one day. I hold beads and a wire to make earrings for Vida, and he coaxes a shuttlecock through a loom.
“Tell me about the Door Room. Please. I have to make sure I’ve picked the right Door.”
“My dear, you must trust your instincts. Do you have questions about religion? We can call a pastor, priest, rabbi, elder, lama, whatever you like. Do you have questions about what will happen to your soul if you choose the wrong Door?”
“Do I have a soul?”
“That’s not for me to decide.”
“If a person realize she’s picked the wrong door, is it too late to go back?”
“When a person comes into the Room, it’s beyond my ability to change Doors. We’ve had a few cases where a person comes into the Door Room and says, for instance, ‘I want the Christian Door, not the Atheist Door,’ but I can do nothing about it.” He takes the earring out of my hand and works the beads like a rosary.
“I want to know two things. Is it going to hurt? What’s the Apatheism Door like?”
“No, it doesn’t hurt. No pain at all. Now, what do you think about when you contemplate death?”
“Feeling safe in a space that’s just for me.” I wrap my arms around myself.
“Then that will be your experience through that Door.”
My Death Date is tomorrow, March Twelfth. I will be forty-seven. There are countries I haven’t visited, books I haven’t read, music I haven’t heard, ballets I haven’t seen, grandchildren I haven’t held. But I also haven’t held Jonathan, not since he lay in our bed, pumped full of morphine by hospice nurses, smelling of disease and lost chances. I haven’t seen him since his body lay still, and he left the earth.
For my Event I opt for games and lots of drinking at the pool and dinner with friends, including Vida. Bethany won’t come. I begged her. At the pool the residents act as though it’s just another day. The sun beats down on us. I don’t care about skin cancer.
This evening the women wear cocktail dresses and the men, suits. We tease each other about being dressed up and not schlubby like we usually dress. The dining room lights are dimmed. The rectangular table is covered in maroon and light gray linen, and the tableware shines in the pale light of the chandelier. My guests sit six on each side, and I sit at the head of the table. We begin with lobster bisque served with white burgundy, next an arugula salad with pear, blue cheese and walnuts with Sauvignon Blanc, then Wagyu steak with Cabernet Sauvignon, and end with red wine chocolate cake and twenty-year-old Calvados. My friends know wine, and they appreciate an excellent guilt-free meal.
We talk about flu shots, March Madness, and gluten-free. No one asks me which Door I declared. Kind of like not asking which political party one supports. There is an unbroken code. We don’t discuss the door we have chosen. We are irredeemably drunk. The only reference to tomorrow, they sing “Happy Birthday,” my death fugue sinfully off key. I throw my arms wide as though we are all in a group hug and thank everyone for joining me at my last meal.
Vida and Armie convince me not to go back to my apartment and crash. We walk to a courtyard with a fountain and white rattan couches. It is private and surrounded by bougainvillea, succulents and cacti. We hear shouts and music that comes from the pool.
They sit on each side of me. I suspect this après dinner chat was planned. Vida starts the conversation. “I want to ask you one more time whether you are making the right decision.”
Armie pulls up the front of her strapless gown. “Vida, she’s making the right decision. I know she is.” They’re going to play good cop-bad cop with me. How did they suddenly get sober?
“How do you know? You haven’t heard the sorrow her daughter is feeling,” Vida says.
“Doesn’t matter. Portia’s the final arbiter of this subject.”
Seems like they don’t need me for this conversation. I mentally bow out. When Jonathan was diagnosed and given the likely prognosis of three months, he told me he wanted to downplay the doomsday element. Friends approached him and said he would show the doctors they were wrong. “I’m not going to die from the cancer. It’s going to be Portia’s cooking that gets me,” he said, an unfair statement considering I had mastered pork roast dinners.
When the pain in his back and abdomen beat him up, he sat in a lounge chair in our family room with his feet up. His handsome face was soft and slack. His gray blue eyes were drained of color and replaced with a yellow cast. They no longer showed his inquisitiveness. His mouth was no longer mischievous. I learned what death looked like.
On one of the few days that were left to us, he asked me to sit on his lap.
“Babe, it won’t be comfortable for you.”
“Don’t worry about that. Here.” He patted his thin legs.
I positioned myself carefully and lay my head on his chest. I felt his ribs, heard his heart beat. How many more days would I hear his heart? I couldn’t imagine life without his heart beat pulsing beneath my cheek. I wondered if I would remember what it sounded and felt like after he was gone. I wanted to record the sound.
“I want to talk to you about the promise we made to each other,” he said.
“Which one? The one where I wouldn’t buy more shoes?”
“No, the one where we agreed that after one of us died the survivor would make arrangements to die.”
“I’m way ahead of you. I’ve been doing some research online. I didn’t realize how popular these places—”
“Stop,” he said. He patted me on the back with one of his weakened arms. “I don’t want you to keep your promise. You’re too young. You’ll have Bethany to think about.”
I lifted my head to look at him. “Jonathan, Jonathan. Listen to me. Don’t do this, a deal is a deal. Bethany won’t miss me. You’re the one she’s close to. I don’t want to live if you aren’t here with me. Don’t, don’t talk about this. I mean it.” How could I deny him anything?
“This will be the last thing I ask you to do.”
I shook my head. “But I made a promise.”
“I’ve been thinking about something, asking myself if I believe in the afterlife or reincarnation. I think I do believe my soul will have another life.”
“Where is this coming from?” I sat up. I thought this wasn’t a fair fight for either of us. “You have never, we have never said we thought we had souls that were going somewhere afterward. You’re dropping all this stuff on me.” I lay back with my face on his chest. I cried, something I hadn’t done since we got Jonathan’s diagnosis, because he insisted we stay up, stay positive.
“Don’t cry. Since we found out, I’ve been thinking and doing some reading. Porsh, when it’s real, when death sits next to you, takes your measurements, periodically checks the time, well, it makes you think.”
“You are really confusing me.” I wiped my wet face on his t-shirt that read It’s not denial. I’m just selective about what I accept as reality. “I don’t think any of this afterlife, soul stuff is real,” I said. “Exactly what we’ve said the entire time we’ve been together. Of course, I want you to believe whatever is going to get you through this, but—“ I heard Bethany walk into the house. I didn’t move, but continued to lie in Jonathan’s pale embrace.
“Hi, Dad. You’re looking good,” she said and reached down and gave him a kiss. “Mom,” her entire greeting to me. “You two look pretty serious. What’s going on?”
“We were just talking about your mother—” he said.
I put my hand over his chapped lips. “Nothing, Beth. Just parent stuff.” Bethany didn’t know about our promise, which I felt was slowly disintegrating. I didn’t think that moment was a good time to tell her. After. I’d tell her after. I stood up and walked to the French doors that looked onto the pool.
That was the end of that conversation. He declined the next day, and the hospice workers kept him “comfortable” with pain medication. What could they give Jonathan that would make him remotely comfortable?
Three days later I sat with him. He didn’t smell like my husband. On that day the woody scent that filled his closet was overtaken by an acidic, chemical smell. The sunlight settling in the west forced Jonathan to blink rapidly. I closed the shutters and put sunglasses on him.
“You’re my rock star,” I said, my voice not recognizable to me.
He spoke single word sentences: “Talk.” “Photos.” I got all of our photo albums and described the pictures to him. “Here we are on Samos Island. It was the one time I went topless at a beach. Here we are with Bethany at her first holy communion. Do you remember? We were gritting our teeth through the service. Oh, this was our house when it was just the dirt lot. We picked this lot because Buddy peed on it. We were nuts back then.” I turned to the next picture and sighed before describing it. “Jonathan, this is a picture of us in the funhouse. You’re taking a picture of us with all those crazy mirrors.”
Jonathan reached for my hand. The skin on his hand was loose. His grip strength was that of an infant. “Porsh. Cabana. Boy.”
I put my head in his fragile armpit and cried so loud one of the hospice workers asked me if I needed help. I imploded.
Happy birthday to me. I’m told to stay in my apartment alone until Dr. Ammit’s assistant Bella Donna fetches me. I’m wearing my best suit, $1,400. I might need it for a job interview wherever I land, if I land anywhere. I pack all my books and give away my clothes to Angel View. Bethany will not be here today. We said our “good-byes” a week ago, such as they were. She asked me not to call or text her before I depart, that she can’t handle talking with someone who is almost beyond the pale as it were. I failed her.
Bella comes into my apartment and asks if we can sit for a minute. “Some residents take something with them, a favorite book, jewelry. One resident took his bicycle. We drew the line at jetskis. Some women wear long gowns, others sweatsuits—to be comfortable.”
“I’ll take a book.” I rummage around in the boxes, an excuse to slow down the process. A last chance to decide if this is right. “It’s a volume of Shakespeare’s plays.”
“Well, if you’re ready.”
“Bella, what’s the Apatheism Door like?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t gone through it. We can’t sample the doors.” She swallowed a giggle.
We walk to the Restricted Access Doors, Bella does the retina scan, the Doors click, and we walk in. My head is in a kaleidoscope, colors changing, changing, can’t see the room, reds, greens, blues. My heart is pounding as though I just finished the Boston Marathon, except I ran to Philadelphia. When the light show dissipates, I see the room, big enough to play Argentinian football. It is stark white floor to ceiling. White marble floor, glossy winter white on the walls. Recessed lighting. No furniture, artwork, plants, nothing, just white space. Perfect temperature. There’s a smell. Not disinfectant. Not the ocean. Not flowers. Clean. It smells like clean.
Dr. Ammit walks into the room from a door I hadn’t noticed. He’s wearing a white floor-length robe, a white fedora, and white alligator cowboy boots. I wish I could tell Vida.
“Hello, Portia. Happy birthday.” He bows and kisses my hand. “Perfect day to die. I see you’ve brought a book. What do you have here? As You Like It, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and All’s Well That Ends Well. Excellent choices. I understand you had an enjoyable Event yesterday.”
“Yes, thank you, especially for the dinner. It was amazing. Excellent wine choices.” I think if I keep talking—
“Any last questions?”
“Why is it all white in here? There’s no color, no furniture.”
“You declared you are indifferent to religion or spiritual principle of any sort. So you don’t need any of the accouterment of religious and spiritual residents. They have statuary, altars, lots of plants and flowers, that sort of thing. Shall we get started?”
I am so scared. “When I die, even though I don’t care about religion, if there’s a heaven, will I go there? My family says I’m going to hell.”
“You’ll get what you declared.”
He walks to two white elevator doors on the far side of the room and motions for me to follow. There is no sound. No footfalls on the marble. He pushes the button, which I notice is marked neither up nor down. We wait. There is a ding, and the doors open. He takes my arm and guides me. I walk behind him into the elevator, and then he walks out.
“Have a nice day,” he says.
Before I can say anything, the doors close.
The walls and doors are mirrored. I straighten my suit after looking at it from all angles. I hear a whirring noise. The elevator is moving but I can’t tell the direction. Then the elevator lurches to a stop. I wait five, ten minutes. Nothing. There’s a phone set into a wall, and I pick it up and wait. And wait. Fifteen minutes go by. A male voice comes on the line.
“I need help. My elevator stopped.”
“Yeah. It’s stuck.”
“Can you help me?”
“Uh, it’s goin’ to be awhile.”
“A couple hours. At least.”
I decide to sit on the floor. I don’t have my iPhone. I was told that I wouldn’t get reception, but I could at least have played “Where’s My Water?” I sigh. How am I supposed to get to my Door if this elevator doesn’t move? Will I get locked out of my Door?
I’m tired. I didn’t get much sleep last night. Vida and Armie argued until one a.m. I declined to take the sleeping pill Dr. Ammit offered me. Maybe just a little nap now. I lie down and immediately fall asleep.
When I awake, I have the sensation a lot of time has passed. I look at my watch. Dr. Ammit said I wouldn’t need it, but it’s my last bit of control. It’s five thirty! I’ve been here since eight o’clock this morning. I stand and bang on the elevator doors and yell. “Dr. Ammit! Please someone help me!” I drive my fists into the doors and scrape my knuckles. “Dr. Ammit! Bella!”
“Portia, dear. What’s the matter?” His voice over a loudspeaker.
“The elevator is stuck. No one’s come to fix it.”
“That’s right. The elevator will not be fixed, but feel free to call, anyway, if you like.”
“But my Door? How do I get to my Door?” I pause and have a chilling feeling. I’m afraid to ask the question. My voice is timid, unlike me. “You mean this is it? The elevator doors are my Door?”
“But an elevator? Why not a beach in Hawaii?”
“A beach represents nature at its best. It’s a spiritual setting. You said you wanted a space just for you. An elevator is the perfect expression of indifference we could find.”
“But—. Dr. Ammit! Dr. Ammit?”
No one answers. I stare at the mirror, then turn to my left. There I am. To the right. Again. My distorted reflection is a funhouse mirror. Then a noise fills this closed-in box. A vibration throws me onto my knees. I bend my head down, hold my hands to my ears. “No! No! Please, no. God, no.” I fear my ears will pulse with blood.
Musak fills the elevator. Piped-in music plays the theme of “Yesterday,” followed by “What a Wonderful World.”
Kat Rohr is a California attorney. She graduated from Antioch University Los Angeles with an MFA in creative writing. She also has a certificate from UCLA/Extension in creative writing fiction. Her stories have been published in Lowestoft Chronicle, Montreal Review, Bewildering Stories, Arcadia, and Emrys.
Brigid Morell lives in New Orleans. She takes pictures everyday.