By: Frances Molina
Twenty-two years ago my father brought me into the world. I mean this literally because my mother was unconscious. The doctors had to cut me out of her and her body couldn’t handle the drugs flushing through her system or my reluctance to leave it. So when the doctors could be sure that I was breathing, they gave me to my father first. Every year on my birthday, he tells me the same story. How he carried me down the halls of the maternity ward, weeping, holding me up to the sound of exultant applause.
I was the only child my parents would have. There was too much risk involved. So I was their miracle, evidence of the oblivion that I had somehow escaped.
It’s a lot of pressure to put on a child, that pink and blueish unformed thing, riding the edge of life and death.
(Maybe that’s why babies scream when they’re born. Because they know. With that first gasp of air, they swallow the ultimate truth of the world in one big wallop. In some place beyond, a veil is lifted. Wouldn’t you cry too? I shudder when I think of the children who are born laughing or worse - the ones who don’t make any sound at all.)
When I get a little older, I hate sleeping alone. I hate my room with unyielding intensity, a hate that is also fear. I am afraid of the dark, but specifically the dark in the corners of the room where it is darkest. I could almost see the face of something, fragments of moonlight glinting like eyes. I was sure Death had followed me, had slid out of my mother after me, like oil. I understand that it is patient. It will get what it wants. Eventually. I watch it, ebbing in the shadows, until the sound of faraway trains pulls me into sleep. I wake up upset, struggling to understand the animal smell of fear in my clothes.
The church is a mausoleum of cold grey stone and green marble. Front and center, Christ hangs in bloody agony under a golden arch (I will always remember this crucifix, the first time I really saw what a man looked like, the first time I felt a ripple and a pulse of something extraordinary deep in my guts). Catholics, I learn quickly, do Death as it was intended - with style.
We eat flesh off the marble altar. We drink blood from golden cups. We keep bones and scraps of muscle and gore in boxes of pure silver encrusted with jewels. The air is full of sage and ghosts. We are a haunted people by choice.
I learn that Death is cause and effect, punishment and reward, something to dread and to crave. Death can be stopped but it is also inevitable. I learn that if you make the right choices again and again, you can best Death entirely. But it really is sort of who you know.
At a family party, my grandmother asks me to dance for her. She asks me to wear the tutu she’d gifted me the year before. I am eight years old. I flatly, selfishly, refuse her. When she dies in the summer time, my small mind understands that in some way it is my fault. Death is a consequence for everything. Even if it’s not you who’s dying.
“I’ve made my peace with Death,” he says from the passenger seat. “If I went tomorrow, that would be totally fine.”
I take my eyes away from the road to look at him. It is a Wednesday afternoon and we are driving to a sporting goods store.
My father has trouble talking to me in anything other than existential platitudes and cryptic visions of his past and my future. What he manages to communicate most clearly is Worry. When he says goodbye to me it’s as if it’s the last time he will see me – or at least, see me alive. He sends me off to the grocery store for prayer candles and whispers rosaries until I return.
My mother told me how he used to stand over my crib, watching the twitch of my eyelids, counting my breaths. There was a smell in the room, rising up from under the milky sweetness of my skin; the kind of rot you can’t worry away. Death sits in the corner, a well-trained hound, repulsed by the life inside of me and the love that surrounds me and yet – patient.
Mom doesn’t suffer my dramatics.
Mom is lucky. She made it to the shore in time to be saved, to have the lake water wrung out of her screaming child-lungs. Later on, strangers in strange countries where she travels decide not to rape and kill her. Unlike the droves of Irish cousins and uncles and aunts who came before her, she is not stupid and she is not a drunk and she will not kill herself.
When the doctor finds the lump in her left breast, she tells me the news casually in the parking lot of a fast-food taco joint, as if she is merely reminding me of an errand I must run.
I never once see her cry, but I guess she must have.
The thought of a Grim Reaper never scared me very much.
If someone offered to walk you home in the dark, wouldn’t you accept? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a hand to hold?
When I fuck him, Death can’t seem to sit still at its place in the corner. It moves in and out of the room like a disinterested animal. The man’s hand closes over my mouth, around the meat of my throat, and I see white. A twitch of interest from Death. But I’m only cumming, hard, breaking apart in ecstasy that is agony that is ecstasy again. I’m crying, laughing, and the man carries me into the shower over his shoulder like a hunter with his trophy.
Death crawls under the bed, and later, I fall asleep so fast I forget to feel afraid.
I’m tipsy and the girl across from me, a new friend, is telling me about the time she died. I ask her, hopeful, if she can remember anything. She says that something came swimming out of the darkness. A choice. And she had to choose, she says. To go back to the body she had just left or to stay dead.
Later on that night, I think a lot about her mouth as I scroll through disturbing film clips on the Internet. The gore always looks so orange on a computer screen. As I watch zombies and demons tear out the throats of the innocent and mad men slaughter and rape and feed shit to their victims, I wonder if any of those dead were offered a choice. I wonder if I will.
In twenty-two years, I have dodged Death a thousand times. But we are fated for a cinematic meet-cute somewhere down the line. Maybe in a supermarket, a café, in the aisle of a 747. I toe the line. I check and see if I am lucky like my mother. I take drugs from strangers in clubs where so many girls before me have picked the wrong poison and died. When men reach for me in the dark, I melt under their hands. I walk home alone in unknown cities and I walk slow.
But I still don’t sleep right. Some nights, sleep comes to me so quickly, sweet and strong and suffocating like good whiskey, that I am almost afraid it is Death in disguise. Other nights, desperate, more needful than I could imagine, Death climbs onto the bed and sits on my chest. I am so afraid I can’t breathe. I stare up into its face, into the silver of its eyes, and I know one day I will have to stop running. It is the certainty of this that will, eventually, drive me insane. I feel the tickle of it, my own madness, in the back of my throat as my mouth fills with Death, thick like oil, smothering, closing in on me like a claw.
On those nights, I stay up and stare into the darkness like I did when I was a little girl. I make cup after cup of tea, murmuring prayers under my breath that I thought I would have forgotten by now.