Introduction by Alyssa Songsiridej
What I love about Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s work is how seriously it takes the twin projects of writing and living, especially writing and living now, when the world often feels on the verge of ending. In Van der Vliet Oloomi’s fiction, literature is not depicted as an escape from the world, but one of the most rigorous and careful ways to engage with it. This recommendation might make the work sound very serious—and it is!—but Van der Vliet Oloomi also demonstrates that seriousness does not preclude the sensual or the humorous. For example, this new story, “Extinction,” is not just a careful consideration of mass death and societal transformation—it is also a very funny story about the 1918 pandemic.
I am being slightly deceptive—the story is not about the 1918 flu specifically, but about the narrator’s obsession with death and what she calls “plague literature.” Reflecting on her life from the vantage point of death (because, by the way, the narrator is dead, “actually dead!”), she concludes that this passion for pandemic writing comes from living on society’s margins. The only American-born child, she is the only seemingly healthy member of a displaced Middle Eastern family. The rest of her relatives are riddled with chronic illnesses rooted in grief and geopolitical conflict, leading her family members to resent the narrator for her physical hardiness.
This ostracism leads the narrator to a virtual café, where she meets an elderly Spanish woman named Beatriz, who suggests she begin her studies of plague literature with the Catalan journalist and author, Josep Pla. Because writers, according to the narrator, are best read in their environment, she travels to Pla’s home of Girona, a medieval town dense with human memory. She wanders the town’s ancient streets and stone bridges, living off prosciutto sandwiches, beer, and café con leche. She covers her walls with Susan Sontag quotations and lets her chaotic roommate rope her into a night of contact dancing. Her passion for literary death merges with a kind of vibrant living, despite what Beatriz identifies as the narrator’s true ailment: depression.
Looking back at her life from the vantage point of death, the narrator realizes she has been driven by a single question: “What does it mean to write when the world is on the cusp of vanishing?” Often, these days, I ask myself something similar. What does it meant to describe, remember, and create when the world you are communicating with is likely on the verge of extinction? The temptation might be to give up, to shroud yourself in ignorance, giving into a kind of blind hedonism. But “Extinction” remains clear-eyed, adding to the literary plague canon as it performs an articulation of and also a response to what often feels like an unanswerable question.
– Alyssa Songsiridej
Managing Editor, Recommended Reading
If You Were Dead, You’d Be Obsessed with Death Too
Extinction by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi
On a balmy summer day in 2019, at the tender age of twenty-five, I left Los Angeles, that angel-less city of angels, with the intention never to look back. As the plane traveled at five-hundred and seventy-five miles per hour towards Barcelona, I muttered a quick prayer of thanks to the New Migrant Voices Fund for footing the bill in acknowledgement of my courageous literary sensibilities. In my mind’s eye, I was already disembarking, finding my earth legs, using them to cut across the glittery airport mall to the rickety train that would take me to Girona, my destination, a medieval city tucked in the shadows of the Pyrenees on the outskirts of Barça.
A year prior to moving, I’d become friends with a certain Beatriz E, a wealthy, frail woman from Madrid who was fifty years my senior and who spoke perfect English. We met at a virtual Death Café. Even though we were stuck behind our respectable Skype screens doing what people do at death café’s, eating lavishly decorated pastries and drinking fine teas while discussing death, the chemistry between us was so undeniable that it shut down the room. I admired her skeletal freckled hands and the dusty tomes that bulged out of her walls, each a brick of old words that could land a definitive blow to her head (she didn’t seem to care), and most of all her strange dinnerware: high-fired porcelain with a glossy eggshell finish and scalloped edges, decorated with illustrated insects—spruce beetle, grasshoppers, white satin moth. I said all of this out loud. I told her that I admired the way she lifted the pistachio marzipan petit-four with her bony thumb and index finger, sliding it into her mouth as if each finger were an arthropod leg she could use for walking. At this, the other attendees lifted their cheap discolored mugs to their mouths and disappeared.
After that, we met weekly on Skype. We learned everything we were meant to learn about each other. She lived in the center of Madrid in the same penthouse she’d lived in as a child. I’d never known such stability, such continuity. Was it stifling? I asked. No, she said, and threw her head back to laugh, exposing the rugged pink roof of her mouth. I gawked in delight. By our second date, we discovered a mutual obsession with the 1918 pandemic, a subject to which I’d flocked like a moth to a light. Perhaps it’s absurd to employ such a maxim, a moth to a light, since what I was attracted to was death, the eternal darkness where it seemed to me back then (when I was still alive) that one might finally get some rest. Now that I am dead, I know better. I can see more clearly. Alas.
The deeper my living-self delved into the subject of the 1918 pandemic, the more I came to believe that plague literature, literature produced in times of unfathomable collective crisis, was especially effective at exposing society’s corrupted exoskeleton, at revealing who was on the front lines of this war we call life; at revealing who was being sacrificed by whom and at what price, to what end, etc. I shared all of this with Beatriz. She was impressed by my line of inquiry. She told me that Spain, having remained neutral during the ravishing of the Great War, was the only source of reliable reporting when it came to the 1918 tragedy. She told me that I should begin my investigation with the greatest Spanish plague writer of that time: Josep Pla. A Catalan born and bred in the province of Girona. It was decided. I would start with Pla and work my way backward from there toward Bocaccio.
A writer is best read in their environment (this is as clear to me in death as it was in life). The plane landed and off I went, pursuing my literary hunch. The first few weeks in Girona were blissful. I saw the labyrinthian Medieval city through Pla’s eyes. I walked along the arcades. I drank café con leche four times a day. I killed many an Estrella beer in the sunny plazas that the narrow cobblestone streets deposited me into—out of the shadows and into the light! I ate more minis than I could count—miniature sandwiches on offer in between breakfast and lunch. Those shiny brown buns with a leaf of lettuce peeking out and a thin slice of prosciutto draped over the wrinkly greenery had my name written all over them. I bought a 1980’s rusted VW camper van. I drove it to the beach and into the hills surrounding Girona. I watched the vermillion sky settle over the lichen covered terracotta roofs every evening. I loved the river and all the bridges that crossed it. I loved the rude muscular sound of Catalan. And my roommate, a certain girl named Paz (an ironic name for a chaotic character!) minded her own business at first. She knew to leave me alone. But things went south as they always do.
Now that I am dead (actually dead!) and looking back on my life from an incorporeal dimension, an ethereal space of nothingness where there is in fact no rest for the weary (and no minis), I can see that I was possessed by a feverish obsession. That I kept asking myself the same inconsequential question: what does it mean to write when the world is on the cusp of vanishing? A miserable line of inquiry, really. Why exactly this obsession had taken hold of me, I had no idea. It hadn’t even occurred to me to take a step back and evaluate my state of mind (my mental health as the living like to say). I can see now, with the punitive retrospective gaze death abundantly provides, that my obsession had everything to do with living on the margins of society, alongside those who live in the kingdom of the sick.
My family suffered from a variety of chronic illnesses. Severe nerve pain, debilitating muscle loss, chronic fatigue, insomnia, skin prone to bruising, stubborn bleeds from minor cuts, fits of rage, bald patches, sore and blistery feet. They blamed all of their symptoms on the wars and revolutions we witnessed from afar in various parts of the Middle East: Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan. They experienced the wars as a symbolic annihilation, the coming of their second death. Who could blame them? They were born, lived, and breathed under the shadow of war in that same triumvirate of nations and when they got out it all started again, but this time they were paying taxes that helped fund the wars.
I was born in America. In that city bereft of angels. An unexpected late child. My siblings had twenty years on me. I was ignorant of the deep roots of their grief and they, in turn, resented me for being “healthy,” a clueless American citizen. Naturalized by birth. Truth be told, they were cruel to me. Aunts, uncles, siblings, parents. The whole lot. It’s awkward, being the sole healthy member of a cursed family. On good days, I was convinced I had simply been misplaced. That I didn’t belong with them, these imposters claiming to be related to me. On bad days, I wished I too was ill, so that I wouldn’t have to endure the bitter sting of the guilt they administered daily. They constantly threatened: “Keep acting like life is on your side and you will get the evil eye!” I spent my youth standing in perplexity before them, confronted with the looming possibility that reality as I had come to know it would vanish. That they would all die and that would be it. What, then, would become of little old me?
That’s when I met Beatriz. My savior. My heroine. My end-all be-all. Not even my death changes that. Sign of a true friendship.
In Girona, Beatriz and I took things to the next level. We began to communicate in a more old-fashioned manner: snail mail. We scribbled crooked lines impatiently in a thick black ink that often smudged, so that half of our messages were indecipherable. This archaic practice strengthened our love for each other. Our sentiments doubled and quadrupled. We became irreversibly bonded by our mutual interest in periods of mass illness and by our shared sense of foreboding that the pandemic of yore was on the cusp of making a comeback, or to be more precise, that it had always been there, lingering beneath the surface, waiting to force us into a state of reckoning. We studied the past as a means of facing the future.
Sometimes Beatriz sent me newspaper cut-outs of darkly robed men in beaked masks carrying a stretcher across a lone hill; warehouses converted into hospitals lined with rows of flimsy metal beds separated by white curtains; women in long skirts and gloves being fumigated as they stepped off trams, a muddy pool at their feet reflecting their sorry figures. Sometimes we jokingly called one another the tower of Pisa, eagerly leaning into our own demise. It’s no secret that we could count our combined friends on one hand. We had each been abandoned by family and former friends to rot in our limited view of reality, our supposed pessimism, our backward glance. But now we had each other. There was a secretive conspiratorial charge to our friendship, an electric attraction that I often compared to what I imagined it felt like for one UFO chaser to encounter another. Beatriz and I no longer had to keep quiet about what we each sensed would soon happen again: everyone on lockdown, forbidden from gathering, cafes and bars boarded up, masks, the stagnant stale air of a shut-down life. Sometimes we scribbled the death count of the various waves of the pandemic on the back of random postcards we purchased at the tobacco stand. I always picked the loveliest postcards. Ones that highlighted Girona’s architectural gems: the winding green river lined on both sides with peach, olive, and lilac-colored houses; the severe looking gray stone arcades of the old quarter; a view of a limpid blue sky with pink streaks and huge puffy clouds captured from the top of the Cathedral stairs.
I scribbled a line from Susan Sontag on the back of the first postcard I sent Beatriz from Girona: “Illness,” I wrote, “is the night side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.” I added that I had been surrounded by family who only had citizenship in the kingdom of the sick, people who couldn’t even get a temporary visa to the land of health and that I had inherited the opposite problem; I couldn’t get a visa to their kingdom either.
Thus, I wrote, we lived under one roof while engaged in a cold war, unable to recognize each other. I confessed that they had been remorseless toward me, manipulative to the extreme and that I had bent sideways and backwards, twisting my body into knots trying to help them, only to have insults hurled at me when I failed to relieve them of their individual maladies. Did they think I was the reincarnation of Mother Teresa? With that question I concluded my note to her. Beatriz wrote back immediately. A simple line penned with a cold hand: “You are depressed. You were a dual citizen all along, but you didn’t know it. You are the orphan child of war.”
It’s only now (in the limpid light of death) that I can see she was right. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the constant threat of war against Iran . . . it all pained me too much to admit. I had gone numb. And besides, I was only twenty-five. A novice. A newborn. My mouth still smelled of milk, as we like to say back home. Death can be very clarifying. It can help place blame where blame is due. I blame my family’s extreme emotional reactivity, their fragility, for my stoic behavior. My true character—tender, wounded, anxious, sensitive to the pain of others—was hidden, tucked away. It has only emerged now that I am dead. There’s no escaping vulnerability on the other side of life. That’s death’s lesson. It’s a nose-in-the-mud kind of place where you must take a long hard look at your sorry ass. Denial, dissociation, detachment—not a thing here. It’s like a therapy session that won’t end.
Back to the inimitable Josep Pla. He was born in Palafrugell, a small coastal town with square white houses and flat roads set back from the ocean. A sleepy town where children are taught to make clay pottery and straw hats and baskets. As a young man, he had gone to school in Girona, the regional seat of power. Later, he attended law school in Barcelona. But he dropped out during the pandemic and returned to Palafrugell, where, in his own words, he gave in to the diabolical mania of writing. He was twenty-one at the time. No sooner had Beatriz introduced me to his work than I started to believe I needed to live his life, to walk in his shoes. I was convinced this exercise in usurping his life, or allowing his ghost to usurp mine, would bring me some depth of understanding, a key that would unlock for me the strange destiny of my life. I was determined to experience his existence, to discover through his work the answers to my question regarding the relationship between collective crisis and writing. From Girona, I could easily drive to Barcelona, or go north to Palafrugell with my beat-up van. I could literally walk the streets he walked, order neat whiskeys at the same bars, buy my anchovies from the same stands. I could order drink after drink. Piss in the alley. Though I would have to squat because I am a woman. It wouldn’t have been enough to read his work in America, pontificate from afar. No. I wanted my life to mirror his to truly understand what it means to produce literature when the world is being annihilated, when people are dying on masse.
Now that I am examining these facts from a distance, from the bardo, so to speak, Beatriz’s comment seems self-evident: I was depressed. Lost. Disoriented. An imposter. A fraud. I had pretended to be healthy, making recognition between myself and my family impossible. No wonder they loathed me. But what’s the point of knowing this now, when it’s too late?
As I said, in Girona I lived with Paz (a Chilean expat) in a dilapidated house in the hills. She was a complete character. She had flawless brown skin, the most perfect pair of breasts, legs long and sturdy as tree trunks. She often admired herself in the mirror. I would walk into the bathroom (she never closed the door when she peed) to find her sitting naked on the edge of the tub and staring at herself in the full body mirror she had hung on the wall. Sometimes, she’d nostalgically say, “I used to be even prettier. You should have seen me when I was young!” She was forty, but she didn’t look a day over twenty-five, while I, actually twenty-five, looked like a child, an infant, a little chubby cheeked toddler. A nerd obsessed with words on paper. “You’re still gorgeous,” I’d say to lift her spirits, though I wasn’t lying. I thought she was perfect.
But she was odd and that oddness diminished her beauty. She spent most of her mornings sobbing furiously into her pillow, then she would emerge from her room tight lipped, looking defiant, triumphant even, and take a shower (with the door open) so all of the steam would crawl out and settle on the windows, and then she would return to her room and spend the rest of the day chanting mantras and lighting incense before putting on a short dress and heading out in the evening to prowl for men. There was a regular. Marco. An Italian. A skinny, hairy man with big brown eyes and a dimpled smile. And when he came around she seemed elated, high as a kite. I would hear her orgasm at night, at dawn, at midday. Clockwork. And then he’d be gone, out of rotation for a week or two. We didn’t exactly hang out, Paz and I. But we were kind to one another. Civil.
Until one day, while I was conducting my research, scrolling on my computer through digital archives of newspapers from the fall of 1918 and reading Josep Pla’s diary, she burst in and said loudly: “That’s it, I’m taking you contact dancing. It’s terrifying the way you’re always in your head!” I stared at her, astonished. She went on. Her teeth were exposed, her pupils dilated, her eyebrows raised in tension, two tightropes I couldn’t help but imagine Marco walking clumsily across, the hands he had gotten her off with the night before flailing in the air as he tried to grip the air for balance. “I can’t live like this!” she exclaimed. Her tone was more severe now, anxious and breathless. “With you next door,” she sighed while stomping across my room to the wall where I’d pinned my favorite quotations. She squinted in preparation to read out loud from them. “With you,” she repeated, “writing these bizarre things on the wall, like what’s this,” she said in a demeaning tone, her finger squashing the words as though they were gnats, “illnesses solipsistic grip, and what kind of question is this, what does it mean to speak illness?” Then she turned to me and said, “What do you mean, what does it mean?”
“What?” I asked, confused. She was on a roll.
“Or this, here,” she said, pointing her index finger at the latest note I had made from a book by Gay Becker, and which I planned to share with Beatriz in my next letter. “Order,” she read aloud, “begins with the body . . . our understanding of ourselves and the world begins with our reliance on the orderly functioning of our bodies. We carry our histories with us into the present through our bodies. The past is ‘sedimented’ in the body; that is, it is embodied.” To think of how much clearer my ex-life has become since I’ve shed my body! Alas. I could tell the quote had had an effect on her because her posture relaxed. “Akhh,” she finally said, “all this talk about the body and I haven’t heard you have sex once! No one has touched your body since you’ve lived here.”
“It’s only been four months,” I barked back.
“Whatever,” she said, “all I know is that this pent-up diseased energy is seeping through the walls and making me ill.” I wanted to ask her how she thought her constant weeping made me feel, not to mention her chanting; its incessant vibration was so loud I may as well have been living in the center of a beehive. But there was no time for a rebuttal. She’d put the key to the van into the palm of my hand and said, “We’re gonna be late, let’s go!” It was an order. And I obeyed.
The contact dance class took place in a simple rectangular room with low ceilings and laminated floors. There were fans sitting in all four corners, blowing the muggy air around. The stench of body odor kept slapping me in the face. The other attendees were all wearing loose linen pants and white T-shirts. Marco was there too. He licked his upper lip as soon as he saw Paz walk in. She floated over to him. There was an undeniable magnetic force drawing them into one another’s arms. They rubbed their pelvises against one another and sucked on each other’s mouths while I stood there, arms awkwardly dangling at my sides, forgotten. A second later, the instructor walked in. She was dressed like everybody else, only her shirt was peony pink and her hair was braided to the side, and she smelled like a jasmine bush. She pressed a button on the boombox and atmospheric lounge music filled the room. She bent her knees and let her shoulders hang loosely, her arms dangling limply from their sockets. She rolled her head around and her braid whipped from side to side. “Mimic me,” she ordered in Catalan, and we did.
When the instructor felt we had come sufficiently unhinged, she said “now dance off one another; rub, roll, move! Other people’s skin is a surface you can use to gain momentum in life! Balance off one another, lift one another up!” I was down with the second part, but the part about using other people’s skin put my nerves on edge and I was ready to balk when suddenly Paz and Marco, who had been growing off one another like the branches of a sun-kissed tree, appeared at my side and pressed their bodies against mine. I felt Marco’s head in the curve of my neck and Paz was crawling between my legs, pressing her hind parts into my vagina. I won’t lie. It felt good. Like a spontaneous whole-body massage delivered with excellent pressure by an inexperienced hand. I gave in and rolled around with them for a while. I raised my arms and let them nibble on my armpits. I went down on all fours so Paz could do a cartwheel on my back and land on Marco’s ass.
But after a while I grew bored and aware that were the night to carry on, from class to vermouths sipped on the riverfront to the sound of that delicate medieval music that always comes up from the ancient stones of Girona at dusk, the moon gliding across the dark river, flirtatiously following its curves, we’d end up in bed together, groping and mauling at one another like animals, and then I’d be faced with the pressure to join them every time Marco walked through our crooked door. So, I left. I don’t even think they noticed.
I drove the van to the sea. It puttered and wheezed the whole way up the winding coast. I thought the engine would give out on me, but it didn’t. I turned on a dirt road that led to a small cove hardly anyone knew about. I watched with delight as the headlights glided over the blond sand, the foamy lip of the waves, the puckered rocks of the cove that extended like two embracing arms into the water. I love nothing more than being faced with the ocean at night. That heaving purple beast with silver moonlit scales! What could be more beautiful, I wondered, over and over again as I parked under a lone marine pine and went to sleep to the sound of the waves.
When I woke up, the world was soaked in a lavender light. I sat on the beach—thirsty, hot—and thought about the limits to which this project of mine could be carried. What, I thought, will be the end result of all of this thinking about illness and writing? Or about writing while being witness to the rapid death and disappearance of one’s loved ones, neighbors, strangers, grocers, schoolteachers, nurses, bartenders, bus drivers, friends? Had the pandemic arrived on the heels of the Great War as punishment for our ancestor’s dreams of murder? Was there a sickness at the center of humankind that was incurable, devastating, selfish? Was the compulsion to live freely, to do as one wishes regardless of the needs and wellbeing of others, a uniquely human illness? What about the fish in the sea? And the reptiles in the bushes? And the apes we had mimicked while dancing? How did we compare to them?
All was silent. In that silence, I thought of my family. I hadn’t spoken to them since I’d arrived to Girona. What were they doing? I wondered if they were all still occupying their positions, lying catatonic in different corners of our house, our borrowed home, while watching on the television screen as missiles fired across a black sky in Iraq, one golden flashing sparkling necklace of death hovering above that distant horizon for ten seconds, or maybe fifteen, before crumbling a home or a school or a hospital onto the heads of innocent civilians. What was my role in all of this? Where was my place in the universe? I had no idea. I still have no idea even though I am, technically speaking, on the other side of things. I walked up to the sea and waded in the waves. I bent over and washed my face. I saw my reflection on that salinated surface. It was the face of a depressed person. A wounded face. I had not yet found my place in the grand orchestra of the world. I hadn’t found the note that would tune me back up and put me on good terms with my life. No. The good life was out of reach.
To my relief Marco and Paz were nowhere in sight when I returned to the house. I made myself a pot of coffee and grabbed a roll of bread and some butter from the fridge, sat on the couch and kicked my feet up. I was running out of money. I hadn’t budgeted at all. I’d spent too much on the van. I’d eaten too many minis. Drank too much. I hadn’t told Paz that I didn’t have enough to pay rent next month. Once I run out of money, I thought, I can sleep in the van. It will be my home, a roof over my head. I could feel that day approaching.
The next day I received a reply from Beatriz. It was the gravest letter I had received from her thus far. It read: “I have gone through life without referring to or speaking about my body, in a kind of dissociative trance. When we are in pain, we can no longer deny our constant condition of mortality. In other words, disease forces us to address the body, to speak it. Yet, rendering legible the subjective experience of disease—the business of speaking illness—is a challenging one. I am not up for the task. I have decided to give up the fight. I have been ill for some time now and I feel with each passing day more exhausted, less capable of surviving this slow descent to my grave. I have decided to speed the process up, to take matters into my own hands. Who will deny me that freedom? The freedom to end this life I’ve bared and conducted to its limits? I have had very few real choices in my life. Our friendship is the best among those. Do not make the same mistakes I’ve made. I was taught as a young woman to be ashamed of myself. To enter into all of my relationships as a person whose role it is to service the needs of others, to anticipate them even. Now, my husband, is gone. He is no longer looming over me with that huge voice of his, those hands of his that seemed to me larger than the paws of a bear. And I am ready to rest. This decision, final, will be my own even if it is the only big, bold decision I ever made for myself. I will wait for you to arrive so that I can give you my papers. We should meet IRL as they say. What a strange world we are living in—in real life—who came up with that? Hurry, I am losing my grip.”
I stood in the middle of my room in a frozen rictus. Beatriz, my only true friend. My friend of the dark night of the soul. How could I have not known that she was ill? That she had attended the death café to discuss her own looming death, that I’d appeared and derailed her. I remembered telling her that her fingers were like the legs of an insect and felt ashamed of myself. I turned bright red. I felt hot. I wanted to crawl out of my skin. I stared out the windows at the distant hills covered in soft grass, at the hay bales rolled into perfect circles, left to rest in the fields that skirted those hills. I took in the big blue sky. The sun was shining brightly. I had the impression that Girona was lifting off into the heavens, hovering above the earth, shaking itself loose from its hold. Oh, how eternally painful life is on earth and, yet, how utterly pleasurable it can be. Death is more monotone, less extreme; at least it has that going for it.
On an impulse, I packed my belongings, I cleared the walls, my desk, my small collection of shoes. I left a note for Paz on the fridge. “Goodbye and thank you for taking me out the other night!” There was nothing else left to say. I got in my van and headed toward Beatriz’s house in Madrid.
I drove all day, stopping only to let the van cool off. I was terrified of arriving too late, of finding Beatriz immobile, lifeless. At night, I slept in fits and starts in a parking lot adjacent to the highway. I felt like a runaway, a prisoner who had broken loose. I drove down the highway for two days, at thirty, cars overtaking me on both sides, the engine strained by the soaring midday temperatures, the forbidding Spanish heat. I had the impression while driving that everyone’s lives were progressing while mine, like the lives of the writers whose days had been stalled abruptly by the pandemic almost a century ago, was coming to yet another halt. Now I can see that I was experiencing a premonition. Intuiting my own demise. Death has a way of illuminating the truth. And the truth was that when I’d thought I was lifting myself up by leaving life as I’d known it behind, I had only regressed further into darkness. I was only digging my grave. I’d ended up alone, in an unreliable rusty VW van from the 80’s on the other side of the Atlantic, chasing the papers of a friend—my only friend—who was on the cusp of taking her own life. What a terrible joke. Unrefined. Brute. A rude indelicate joke of cosmic proportions.
I finally arrived at Beatriz’s apartment. I stood at the gates of the complex, dehydrated, the sound of the tires rolling against the tarmac still echoing in my ears. I stared at the top floor of the building, flooded with dread. I kept searching the windows. I feared I would see her body hanging from a rope tied to the exposed beams in her ceiling. She had given me virtual tours of her penthouse. If that’s the route she’d chosen to go, those beams would have been the way to do it. But the sun was too bright and the windows reflected only a few fat clouds drifting lazily across the sky, grazing its wild blue surface. Perhaps, I thought, she’d waited for me after all. But I had my reservations: It had taken me too long to get to Madrid; she had already sounded simultaneously desperate and decided in her message, which had likely taken days to make its way over to me in the first place; what would she stand to gain from a face-to-face encounter with me, her devoted pen pal of death? I was at war with myself. Enter the gates, ride the elevator up to her penthouse, find her dead, call the police. That was one scenario. Turn back, return to the sea, live under a marine pine in the van. That was the alternative scenario. There wasn’t a third option. I didn’t even have enough money to buy a return ticket to America. I could teach English to Russians. I’d seen ads by Russian ex-pats searching for English tutors for their children all over Girona. What could be so terrible about teaching English to Russian children while their parents lounged by their infinity pools overlooking the sea, their shiny blond hair parted down the middle, their scalps burning, their whole bodies glistening with the waters of the world? No, I thought, no. I’d rather clean toilets for a living.
I walked through the gates. I went up the elevator. It jerked up to the top floor and spat me out violently. Beatriz’s door was cracked open. I poked my head in. “Hello?” I called out, “Hello?” I heard my own voice ricochet off the walls. I opened the door further and stepped in. The walls looked wet, like they had been sweating. I felt my heart galloping like a spooked horse in my chest: thud-thud, thud-thud, thud-thud. I knew then that she was dead. That she had done herself in. It was only a matter of finding her body, of going through the rooms. I began my search. The first three bedrooms were bereft even of furniture. I walked down a narrow long corridor to the back of the apartment and opened a pair of French doors that lead to her library. I saw her before I walked in: she was lying on a wicker day bed, her pale white arm hanging limply off the side of the mattress, her lifeless hand curled on the floor. I felt calm then. All the blood that had been assaulting my heart retreated back into my limbs. I walked up to her. She looked so peaceful. Her round, plump face, her gray eyes, her thin wide mouth, her chestnut-colored lashes . . . all still, motionless. I closed her eyes and let my hand rest on her face for a minute. I said the prayers for the dead I had been taught by my mother. May your soul rest eternally, I said. May you never be asked to return to this earth. I was saying those words again now, but for myself. I was begging for rest.
She had left her papers—her research on the 1918 plague—for me in a stack at the foot of the day bed. I retrieved the papers, then pulled up a chair and sat next to her. There was a post-it stuck to the top of the stack. It read: “To my only true friend. Did you know that Roberto Bolaño had retreated to Girona to write too? He was a fugitive, like you. I exchanged many a letter with him. What is left of those letters is in this stack I’ve left for you.” I had not known. Yet another thing I did not know about Beatriz. And no one had bothered to tell me that RB too had lived in that walled-in stony city that is always covered in a veil of mist. I would have felt so much less solitary living there had I known that he had lived there alone, too, in exile. But alas. He was dead now, too. And now so am I. All three of us are. Me, Beatriz, Bolaño. To think that we haven’t seen each other once in the Bardo. All those empty promises of reunion. No, you just get the one life, the one go. I held Beatriz’s note in my hand and stared at it. That’s when it happened. That’s when I began to disappear. When my turn was up. When I began to turn to ash along with her papers. To become words.
At first, I didn’t understand what was happening. I just noticed something terrible begin to take shape, something horrifying: a rash was working its way up my arms, there were blisters forming in the folds of my fingers. I looked out the window. The sky was blood red; it looked as though it had been set on fire, ready to sear the world. It’s my fate, I thought, catching up with me; the toxic waste of those wars that so consumed my family were blowing my way now too. A cross-generational inheritance. I sat there, calmly, silently, a little confused. I couldn’t have moved if I had wanted to. I felt heat curling up my legs. I felt the world melting in slow motion. I saw myself being swallowed whole. My heart was clamping shut. I was so young and yet so old. I saw myself fuse with her papers. Become as ethereal as language. The show, I thought to myself, quietly, is almost over. My prayers are being answered. I said to myself: you just have to hang in there for one more second, one more minute, another hour, maybe two.