When Arthur was 17 years old, he escaped his father by going for long swims. The water would close over him and he would blow out his air, little bits at a time, until he sank to the bottom and the muck slicked his feet and ankles. When the burning in his chest became too much, he allowed himself to drift towards the surface, becoming aware of the world in pieces: first the light, streaking in and illuminating a galaxy of floating detritus. Then the softening pressure against his eardrums, the warming temperature. And finally, sound and smell and the shock of cold air against his skin as his head broke the surface and he was back, all at once.
Waking up was a little like that, these days. First came the back pain, which never really went away, hovering in his dreams as in his consciousness. Then he became aware of the nausea crawling around his abdomen and the sense of weakness in his legs and then suddenly the desperate need to urinate, and he was awake, all at once.
So after all that was taken care of, after the humiliating process of getting dressed had been completed, he would hobble down the hallway and sit down for breakfast. Rose would read him the news. The vague beige color of oatmeal would wobble in his line of vision. And eventually drowsiness would rise around his ears like the water he used to dive into, and he would sink into it.
The days passed like this. Sometimes death felt tantalizingly close, and other days maddeningly distant. The children came and went, with their own children in tow, and that was nice when it wasn’t irritating. Mostly, though, it was the pain, and the glare of the sunlight against the white lace tablecloth, and the leather chair in which he could sometimes fall asleep.
It was hard to explain to anyone, really, what it was like to want death. Not in the intense way that some young people wanted death; not because of the desperate and tortured desire to escape something. He had loved his life, in his way. He had tasted the thrill of financial success, warm and thick in the back of his throat like a rich hot chocolate. His fingers knew the way a girl’s waist feels, expanding and falling rapidly as she tries to catch her breath in a fast-paced dance. He could remember the joy of tickling a child, touching the impossibly soft baby skin and watching the round face crack open into laughter. He knew, too, the bursting peppercorn sounds of war, the crushing weight of bankruptcy, the slow grind of grief from losing a parent too young.
Don’t you see? His life, he knew, was over. The sickeningly familiar tastes and textures and sounds of each day had simmered into a depressing sort of buzz, and even when he slept, he often found himself in bizarrely vivid dreams that frightened him in a way he hadn’t been frightened since he was a boy. And when his family celebrated his 100th birthday, it was nice to have them all in the house, and all celebrating him, but it was also tiresome. To stay alive 100 years was no cause for congratulations; it was excess, and he had never asked for it.
In the evening they said goodbye, and he lay in his chair, one foot in sleep and one foot in awareness, recovering from the shock of energy and noise they always had swirling around them. He couldn’t remember who had won the football game they’d spent the afternoon watching. Maybe he had slept through the end. As Rose began cleaning up the kitchen, accompanied by the familiar clinks and splashes, it was one of those times when death seemed to be hovering just before him—come a little closer—and the velvety relief of it struck him again, how easy it would be to go right now, having just said goodbye to the children and with crumbs of chocolate cake still dotting his sweater. But it wasn’t time yet. Instead he slipped into sleep, dreaming of diving deep into the pond, his friends on the shore calling Arthur, Arthur, come up! But he was already away from them, pumping his arms until his shoulders burned so he could reach the bottom and be, finally, somewhere else.