It is the hour of 4, and the light is best for where I sit on the chaise-lounge, beside the scabby hot tub that’s been dry all summer. The hot tub is kaput because the large fir popped up the concrete and upset the balance of the plumbing. It works, but leaks and registers strange error codes, makes distressing sounds. An insect paddles on its side across my drink and I gather it with a finger and flick it into the grass. I am unemployed, and the first leaves of summer have just started to fall.
Paige died. I hadn’t thought about Paige in a long time, didn’t recognize the name of the guy who emailed to tell me. Looked him up on the internet and stared a good, long time into his eyes trying to place him, 20 years ago in the south of France.
I went back to that day, to reconstruct what I could of Paige: the sound of the intercom and her voice on the other end saying I’m here with some friends…can we come up? Now that was odd because I was living in the south of France and Paige was from upstate New York, and we hadn’t made any plans to see each other. And she had six people with her, and nowhere to stay.
It was mid-morning so we went to the gas station to buy some beer. And then to the beach, where I got stung by a jellyfish and they told me to put urine on it, which worked. And back to my apartment where I assembled dinner and opened all the windows, and we danced and got drunk and passed out and woke the next day, me beside one of Paige’s girlfriends thinking we’d probably messed around, but not sure.
Paige’s friend said that night was one of the highlights of their European trip and they talked about it often. He was groping for something to remember her by, that loss you feel for the dead and desire to fill it with something, anything, to bring them back.
It was that summer I read Carlos Castaneda and the teachings of a mystic he writes about, Don Juan. There was a lot of talk of death in that book, but in a positive sense: like, how to honor and acknowledge death to live a more meaningful life. I was 27 and single and working on my tan. The Mediterranean was so salty you could float on it without trying, and I often swam at night or in the morning before the sun got too high. I had a thousand dollars to my name and no responsibility, other than watering the garden where my mom and John lived, one town over.
Mom said one time she discovered a hanging man on that walk, hung himself from a fruit tree. But her French wasn’t so good and when she tried to tell the villagers she had to augment with charades, and they all just laughed and ignored her.
On that walk between my town and mom’s, every day I passed an ornate wall on the sidewalk by the gas station but it wasn’t until the end of the summer I thought to look on the other side, and there I found a cemetery facing the sea, an above-ground one with memorials, flowers, pictures of the dead. It confirmed what Castaneda was saying in his books, that death is right there with us always—not separate—faces of the same coin.
Paige wrote a year ago, asking how things were. She was fighting breast cancer, but didn’t say that in her note. Her husband had died from a brain aneurysm a couple years prior, and they had two young girls. I got that from the obituary. How do you spin death into some positive, mystical, ever-present force to two kids who lost both their parents before they’re even teens? There is nothing “fair” in nature. Fair is a false construct that sets us up for disappointment in the laws of the universe we have no say in.
Stubble of dead leaves at the base of the hedges on my walk to the lake this morning. In the book The Snow Leopard the village people were getting picked off by the leopard but then figured out if they wore hats with faces painted on the back of their heads the leopard got fooled and death rates dropped by half. The mountain lion, a personification of death itself, unseen but ever present. An opportunistic hunter who looks for the weak or injured, who also likes kids.
Autumn’s first spiders have now arrived; the grass is starting to brown. The cat has a new collar with a bell. The night’s first bats stir. Blackberries fatten on the vine, crying pick me.
Our lives are delicately arranged like this in some haphazard fashion, an accident of beauty with an undercurrent of pain, clear in its intentions if you’re able to decipher it. A riddle with a madman’s resolution, which is none.
Fairness is a ruse, a made-up luxury of man, and there is nothing natural about it. Its cousin karma is no different. We assign beliefs to fabricate meaning and for temporary relief. The cat hugs the rocks above, and you are not to break eye contact with it once encountered. You make yourself look big, and then fight for your life.