With Open Eyes
By Cecilia Tan
8 January 2001
Some people see the future in a ball of blinding white light. Some see the past in the black cracks between moments. And me? I don't see anything at all.
When I was fourteen, all elbowy and knob-kneed, I joined my school's cross-country team. A complete misanthrope's sport, no teamwork required. I never even had to speak to the other boys on the team if I didn't want to; so mostly I didn't speak, I just ran, and hurt and burned and ran. My mother had died three months before.
One dark autumn evening, late in the season and late in the day, I was running along Route 114, the rest of the team far ahead of me, probably all back in the locker room -- echo bang of locker slam -- my feet scraping along in the gravel at the roadside, trying to finish an eight-mile run before night fell completely -- and I went away. I don't know how else to put it. My feet kept running, but the me that I think of as "me" went somewhere else. Where, I don't know, so maybe that wasn't me after all. It was not an out-of-body experience -- I did not look back on my cold self, my lungs on fire with pre-winter air, my sides heaving, my eyes slitted as the wind pulled tears out of the corners. There isn't much to describe, since I wasn't there.
When I came back, though, my feet were slowing to a walk and I was approaching an ambulance at the side of the road. I felt as though I were looking through water. The sounds of voices and the slam of a car door rang from far away; the red light flashing on the ambulance made the branches of the roadside trees predatory. I came to a stop alongside the ambulance. A station wagon had met a telephone pole. They had covered the face of the body on the gurney. The only other thing I remember is the sudden realization that I was not even on Route 114 any more. My determined feet had somehow, of their own accord, carried me to that ghastly scene up a back road I had never even been on. A police car followed the ambulance all the way to the highway, and then brought me home.
I thought about that ambulance last week, when my father was rushed away to the hospital, his face, thankfully, uncovered. Twenty years ago something strange had happened that was never explained. I had never spoken to my father about it. After my mother's death we smothered in condolences, our mouths so full of other people's guilt and pity that we had no words left for each other. As I followed his ambulance to the hospital, I wondered how I could explain my fears, how I could put words to something left in silence so long. But if his time was growing short. . . I felt I had to tell him, but I still couldn't really explain it myself.
I had gone away a few other times in my life, and over time I realized there was a connection between the incidents.
I quit the track team and never ran again after that night, convinced that the rhythm of my feet and the hardship of the cold had induced a trance state, a kind of self-hypnosis, and that I had come upon the accident by chance. But the next time I wasn't running.
It was two, three years later and I had somehow gotten myself attached to a group headed for the shore one Friday. There was a girl, Melissa Bonner, who I desperately liked. She knew this, and for some reason was kind-hearted or confused enough to get me invited along. Two carfuls of sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds, blankets and bathing suits. I, as usual, did not say much. I didn't feel I had to. We laid out our towels like a patchwork quilt on the hot sand, together, and yet separated by our geometric boundaries. I remember sitting down, and thinking how lucky I was to have scored a place next to Melissa, and that's the last thing I remember thinking.
When I came to, I was standing in sand so hot it felt like my feet might be burned. I wiggled my toes to bury them into the cooler damp sand underneath, even as I looked at the scene in front of me. Two lifeguards were working in tandem on a fat man between them, one pinching the man's nose and breathing into his mouth whenever the other one would stop pumping his chest with his hands. The man's blubber shook, a beached whale, melting in the sun. Other people were gathered around, too, including a woman I guessed was the man's wife. I don't now remember what she said, only that her face was taut with distress. I remember the moment the lifeguards gave up, though, exhaustion creasing their tanned brows.
This is not the sort of thing one is supposed to think about while pacing the waiting room of a hospital while a loved one is ill. But what else can you think about? Death is the sort of thing that can't be avoided, I guess.
The third time, I knew it was death itself that was the connection. I was in college then, trying to decide between philosophy and neuroscience. I remember it was spring, the first really warm day, the green covered with students determined to enjoy it, studying in the grass, playing Frisbee. . . It's a wonder I was able to pass through their midst without mishap. Then again, who's to say that I did? Perhaps that's where those bruises on my shin came from. When I came to, I was in the library, standing over a carrel deep in the stacks. All around me the building hummed, the concrete resonating with the ventilation system, like a ship. The stacks were dark, lit only when you turned a dial at the end of a row, which would then tick like an egg timer back to darkness. At the carrel, a student looked like he was asleep, one arm cradled under his head, his glasses on the floor. I picked up the glasses, thinking to put them on the desk next to him, then deciding, no, I'll tell him. I started to form the words in my throat: hey, your glasses were on the floor. . . Excuse me, sorry to wake you but. . .
As soon as I reached to touch him on the shoulder I knew he was dying. My hand moved toward him, and I just knew the life was leaving him at that moment. His last breath gurgled out of his lungs, as his body gave up whatever fight it had been having. I remembered something my father had said to my little brother before my mother's funeral. My brother had been asking "Why? Why? Why?" And my father had said, "Sometimes people just die. They just do. We don't know why."
Sometimes people just die. I later learned that the kid had died of some congenital weakness, embolism or aneurysm. Which did not make my father's statement any less true.
My father had had a stroke, the doctors determined. And he wasn't dead. He was unconscious, though, for a time, and then merely asleep. I wondered how the doctors could tell exactly, since I had chosen philosophy instead of neuroscience, all those years ago. Once he stabilized, they let me sit in his room, where I alternated between watching him sleep and watching the sun rise cold and golden over the gray of the parking lot. I can't say it was the philosophy degree that had led me through a never-ending string of useless jobs, and I didn't miss having one to go to that day. But it was probably the philosophy that kept my mind occupied through those silent hours, as I debated with myself the meaning of life, and other prime questions of existence.
Dad woke up once to find me there, and he said "You don't have to stay here, you know."
I went to the side of the bed and held his fingers gingerly. A tube went into his wrist. "Yes, I do."
"I'm going to be fine."
"I think you should let the doctors decide that."
"There's no reason for both of us to have ruined health. Go home and get some sleep." As if there were any solace in my empty apartment. "You can leave me on my own for a little while."
"Dad, I can't." I wanted to explain why, but my throat wouldn't form around the words.
My father, skipping ahead a few steps in my thought processes, said, "You couldn't have saved her. Even if you'd been there. . ."
"I know," I said, my eyes suddenly on fire with tears I could not cry, while I wondered if he had waited twenty years to say that to me.
"And you can't save me, either. If I'm going to go, what difference does it make if you're here or not?" Believe it or not, he didn't say this bitterly. "At least go home, get a change of clothes, eat."
I nodded like this was sensible advice.
He smiled, and squeezed my fingertips with his. "I'm glad you're here." Then he slipped back into sleep.
Sometime later I circled the ward, the hallways in the wing built like the arms of a capital "H" with the nurse's station in the crossbar. The floors seemed glassy and dangerously slick for a supposedly safe place like a hospital. But who said there was anything safe about hospitals? I feared that at any second I would find myself waking up from a blackout, opening my eyes on another warm corpse. In the thirty-four years I've lived, in the twenty since that first time, a few things are certain. I always wake up to see someone who's just about to die. I've wondered if I could somehow be put to some use by the police, but it's no use trying to explain what happens or to control it. After all, how many people die each day, and I don't show up at each and every doorstep, do I? My biggest fear is, of course, I'll wake up and the body I'll see lying in the hospital bed in front of me will be my father's. How many minutes will have ticked away until the darkness descends? How can I keep a vigil?
What I couldn't explain to him, of course, was that I don't think that I could have saved my mother from dying. No, she was sick and fading in the hospital for quite a while and I don't think I entertained fantasies of being able to cure her myself. But might I have missed something important by being absent at the moment she passed on? Who knows what she might have said beforehand, or how different I might have felt if I had been there? How different could my life have been? These were the thoughts circling in my head as I circled the ward, wondering how two days without sleep would affect me. Would I be more likely or less likely to go away?
Perhaps it was those thoughts, and my determination not to open my eyes on my father's last moments, that made me aware of what happened next. I felt myself slipping, as if I were walking in sand and sliding backward with every step. My eyes defocussed and I was looking at the world through shower-door glass, the sounds around me beginning to echo. Trapped inside my own eyes, this time aware that it was happening, though I could not see exactly where my feet were taking me.
I fought it, oh, I fought it, but what is there to fight when you have no strength, no senses? I tried to clench my hands -- I might have succeeded, it was hard to tell. Time seemed to stop, and yet I knew it must be moving forward, because somewhere out there I was moving forward, one foot after the other, toward another terrible scene.
And then I was there, at a room somewhere in the hospital, blinking at a woman in the bed in front of me. The room was identical to my father's, but the woman was hooked to even more machines. Her cheeks were sunken, but her lips had a kind of fine grace. Her eyes seemed to draw me in, while it seemed mine had only begun to see seconds ago.
"Oh my God." The words came out before I could stop them.
"What?" She pressed those fine lips together in an annoyed line. Then she spat something into her hand.
I blinked and looked at her. "Pardon me if this question sounds . . . foolish. But you aren't about to die, are you? I mean," I winced and tried not to look at the machines. "I mean, not in the next few seconds?"
It was hard to guess her age, because of how illness had aged her. Forty-five? She arched an eyebrow and spoke. "If you're the angel come to take me away, you're a little early."
I saw then what she clutched in her other hand. A bottle of pills. She clutched them close to her, as if I might take them away.
And indeed I might, as my father's words came back to me -- you couldn't have saved her -- and I wondered if, maybe, I could save a life after all, by merely being there. "So sorry," I said, "timetable in Heaven's all mixed up. I'm really much more of a guardian angel, anyway." I almost choked on that -- how many times had I wondered if I was the one bringing ill luck and destruction on those I discovered on waking? "You, ah, you weren't thinking of killing yourself, were you?"
"Yes, dammit," she said, and put the bottle of pills down on the swing-arm table over her legs. "But pardon me for being self-conscious, I just can't seem to do it with someone watching. Could you hand me a tissue?"
I pulled one out of the box on the table beside her and she wrapped what she had spat into it, and made a professional-looking shot at the wastebasket with the wad. She celebrated that small victory with a clenched fist and then looked up at me. "Who are you, and what are you doing here, anyway?"
"Louis," I said, holding out my hand, which she shook with her dry one. Her fingers felt soft, but not weak, in my hand.
"Meredith," she answered. Meredith.
"I, see, my father's. . .," I began, and then stopped. I pulled a chair up to her bedside. "Do you want to hear the real story? The whole story?"
"I am not going anywhere, it would seem." Her lips twisted in a wry smile and I decided she was younger than I'd first thought. Whatever illness she had, her skin looked warm and her gaze was open. "Go ahead."
So I told her the whole tale, from the eight-mile run until today, and finished where I had come in. "And usually I open my eyes to see someone's dying breath. But not today. Not this time."
"So it would seem." Tears had run out of her eyes and down her cheeks but she was smiling. "So it would seem."
She held out her hand and I took it. When she asked me if I'd visit her again tomorrow, I said that I would. And then she drifted off to sleep.
I went back to my father's room. He, too, was asleep. The next day, though, he slipped into a coma. My landlady brought me changes of clothes. I showered at the hospital. I took breaks only to visit Meredith and hold her warm fingers in mine.
They say that sometimes talking helps a comatose person recover. And so, I talked when I was at my father's bedside. What did I say? I had twenty years of bottled silence to uncork. I told him I hoped he could hear me and that I hoped he would get better soon. I told him I was being clothed and fed but that I wasn't going to leave his side long enough to go home. I told him I didn't blame him for my mother's death. I told him I had the strangest sensation, like I was filled with helium, I felt lighter than air, ever since the other day. I told him I thought maybe the feeling might be me falling in love, and I didn't know how to tell since I had never done it before. I told him it felt good.
And I told him about my strange ghastly talent, my magnetism for death, and how afraid I had been to open my eyes to find I was too late. But how I didn't feel afraid anymore. Without fear darkening my sight, I realized that what I had told him was true -- I hadn't wished I could save my mother, I had only wished that I had been there. Maybe I wished it so hard, that unconsciously I was attracted to dying people. Now that I had saved someone (or had someone saved me?) maybe it would all change. Or maybe it was all a series of strange coincidences. Maybe I'll never know.
All I know is that when the moment came for him to die, I stood there holding his hand, and it was he that slipped away, not me.
Copyright © 2000 by Cecilia Tan
Cecilia Tan is known as a pioneer in erotic science fiction and fantasy, both in writing it, and in publishing it as the founder and editor of Circlet Press. As "With Open Eyes" shows, Tan also explores non-sexual themes through speculative fiction. Her dozens of stories have appeared everywhere from Asimov's and Absolute Magnitude to Best American Erotica and Ms. Magazine.
"With Open Eyes" originally appeared in From the Border, the newsletter of Borderlands Books in San Francisco.
An Interview with Cecilia Tan conducted by Mary Anne Mohanraj is in our archives.