Up In the Air
By Richard Larson
24 November 2008
You can become a zombie if you want, but you have to try really hard. I've seen it happen to people, though. They turn green and their ears fall off. But you have to try again and again. You have to always keep trying. Sometimes you die trying.
I don't know if it's worth it.
Zombies are green and smelly, but you already knew that. They don't eat, but at the same time they're always hungry. They cry in their sleep. They tell lies, and even when they're telling the truth they are actually lying just a little bit, to see if you're really listening. Zombies can see in the dark. Zombies can only see in the dark. Zombies can get out of any cage, like Houdini. Zombies are sneaky. They do not tell jokes. They are serious all the time.
Also, zombies are not reckless about love. This isn't a romantic comedy. No big speeches, impromptu proposals at fancy restaurants, spontaneous passionate outbursts. Zombies operate with a plodding, almost resigned indifference. Life itself is cursory and unnecessary to zombies.
Zombies would never do what I was doing.
But I was through with zombies. I was determined to have a good time. I decided I would be the kind of guy who could put things behind him, start fresh. I met someone and decided to have a little fun. We were both from other places. We were there by chance, waiting for planes to take us somewhere else. Only it turned out to be the same plane, taking us to the same place.
"This doesn't have to be awkward," he said as we stood in line, boarding passes in hand. I almost laughed, but instead I regarded him soberly, or as soberly as I could considering the martini, the tequila shots, and our spontaneous rendezvous in the airport's public restroom.
"That's true," I said. "It doesn't have to be awkward."
Without the booze, I never would've done it. But I watched him as he walked ahead of me onto the plane, so perfect in those tight pants, those beautiful arms flexing as he lifted his carry-on and shoved it into the overhead compartment, even as I told myself to stop admiring him, that he was nothing special, that I didn't have time for any of this. I had to figure things out, work on myself a little bit. At least that's what Gabe had said. Which meant, become a zombie, or something. According to Gabe, zombies have all the fun. Gabe, with his rotting face. His absent heart.
The guy with the beautiful arms sat down in a window seat and I checked my ticket twice before saying, "Imagine that," emitting an uncomfortable sound resembling a chuckle or a cackle, something high-pitched and conspicuous, and sitting down next to him.
"What are the odds?" he asked, practically licking his lips.
"Slim," I said. "Very slim."
We waited to take off. I was still drunk. I stretched, yawned, and looked around, trying to seem casual, like I was taking things in stride. Everyone on the plane was boring. Very few were zombies, and the ones that were zombies were old and ugly. Many of them wore sweatpants. One woman wore sweatpants with little dancing zombies on them, probably as a joke, because the man sitting with her was a zombie.
We were in Chicago, where I had come from St. Louis just a couple hours before, on our way now to New York, the city that was supposed to make everything better. The city that would maybe help me forget. I allowed my jeans to casually rub against my seatmate's Abercrombie corduroys, the kind with the cute little holes in them. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a Valium.
"More where that came from?" he asked.
I popped the pill, swallowed it with my mouth dry. I sighed and pulled out another pill and handed it to him.
"That's my last one," I said.
Actually, I had lots more. I was a nervous flyer. I wanted to ask him to hold my hand during take-off, but I thought maybe that was weird. I closed my eyes and waited for the pill to kick in. The plane started moving, slowly at first and then all at once. It raced along the runway, preparing to rise up. I clutched his hand even though he didn't offer it.
"This is so great," he said as we ascended, leaving the earth behind. "You're totally hot, and fooling around earlier was awesome. I just feel so overwhelmed all of a sudden. Maybe it's the booze? And the pill? And the sex? Do you believe in fate?"
I was sweating. I tried to ignore him. Fate was not something I wanted to think about. The existence of fate would make me even more worried. Was it fate that made Gabe lose interest in me and turn into a zombie? Was it fate that compelled me to move to New York, to leave everything behind? But I had to remind myself that Gabe was the one who left first, really. He left without going anywhere. He left when that hole appeared on his face and his left eye took to falling out periodically and he started walking around with that hobble, dragging his foot behind him, that fucking zombie swagger.
Break-ups are sometimes necessary, and they are painful, and actually they're always entirely unnecessary. They make you feel worthless, like you wasted your time. Break-ups are like big battles in ancient wars where two armies run at each other from opposite ends of a field, waving big wooden weapons. Break-ups are like being hit in the head with a big wooden weapon after running across a field while knowing all along that you are about to get hit in the head with a big wooden weapon.
"Because I do," my seatmate continued. "Believe in fate, I mean. I think that I was supposed to meet you. I don't know why yet, you know? But your timing is perfect. I'm totally falling apart right now. I think we're connected, now, forever—" And on and on like that, like a teenager scribbling poetry in a diary. But he was just high. It would pass, hopefully.
I used to write poetry, but I stopped without realizing it. I'll probably never pick it up again, but it's still a part of me, something I tell people when asked about my hobbies, interests, general pursuits. Before I became obsessed with zombies. Gabe used to make fun of me about it. He used to read my one published poem aloud at dinner parties, messing up the line breaks because it was funnier that way, because it made me sound even more earnest. He always asked me what I wanted to do with my life, even though I had already been working at the restaurant for almost ten years. Each time he asked me, it was like he was urging me to change my answer, to come up with something better.
Move to New York. Become a zombie.
Gabe was not always a zombie. I mean, he wasn't born that way. He used to be a man, a man with consistently regenerating flesh and blood, a man with a soul. Someone it was possible to love completely, fully, with no reservations. I met him at a yoga class. He was the teacher; a lawyer during the week, a yoga teacher on the weekends. "Let your body find you," he said to the class, but I imagined that the advice was only for me. "Give it time, give it space. Let it come alive on its own." I could have listened to him forever, letting him find me, giving us both time to come alive. I would have never left.
He was the one who left. It had been almost three years. A lifetime. The first thing he said was, "This just isn't working for me anymore," and I was like, just let me fix it, I can fix anything, I'm really good with my hands. But he said that this one just couldn't be fixed. "You see—" he started, but I wouldn't let him finish. Not yet.
Gabe had already become a zombie, secretly, like maybe I wouldn't notice. But pieces of him started falling off. He started hanging out with other zombies downtown, late at night, and I tried so hard. I learned how to do the zombie walk, the zombie talk. I even learned how to apply make-up that made me look like I was decaying, falling apart on the outside just as I was dying on the inside.
But nothing worked. He didn't want me anymore. So when I met someone who did, it was easy to buy him a few drinks and accept his slurred invitation for a quickie in a bathroom stall. Especially when I was already leaving, when I was already so desperate to become someone new. Someone just a little bit dead.
"Surreal," said the guy sitting next to me on the plane. We were moving up through clouds, rising, the world below us represented by little squares, separated by borders seen only from high above. I think he had just told me something important, something about why he was falling apart, but I couldn't remember. I wasn't listening. I was thinking about Gabe. He was probably on his way to the office. He hated that job; an ugly building with ugly people, ugly chairs. But when I tried to make him quit and move with me to New York so that maybe we'd stand a chance, like maybe a change of scene would do us good, he just laughed like that was silly and impossible, like he would never quit. Besides, he was a zombie and I was just a poser, a fake. What more was there to talk about?
I relaxed a little bit at a time. Maybe I needed another Valium. I'd have to sneak it without the guy next to me noticing, because I no longer wanted to share. What was his name, had he told me his name? I was getting a headache. He was staring out the window. I didn't want to look out the window because then he'd think I was looking at him. But while trying not to look out the window, I ended up looking at him anyway. I didn't stop, even when he noticed. He smiled. "Something on my face?"
"Want to meet me in back in about five minutes?"
I closed my eyes. I opened them. "That sounds good."
He climbed over me, unnecessarily shoving his crotch in my face, and made his way to the lavatory in the back of the plane. I waited just three minutes, and during that time I tried not to think about Gabe, or zombies, and then I followed him back. I knocked once. He let me in. I'd never done it before, like that. I wanted it to be good, because he was just so alive, not dead at all. But maybe I was too sober. It was awkward. I'd like to blame the turbulence, but really it was because I started crying.
"It's okay," he said. Then, as I dried my eyes with tissues from beside the tiny square mirror, he said, "Mind if I finish? I was really close."
"Fine," I said. I walked out, confident that he was up to the task on his own. There was a line of people waiting. When a woman tried to enter the restroom behind me, I quickly shut the door and watched VACANT become OCCUPIED.
"Assholes," she said quietly, furiously.
I made it back to my seat and flagged down the flight attendant. I ordered a white wine. "Better make it two," I said, and she only looked mildly concerned before assuming that I was ordering for my absent seatmate. I tried to wink at her when she handed me the bottles and took my cash, as if to say, "Isn't it funny? I'm scared to fly so I'm getting wasted." But then I started to twitch and the twitching wouldn't stop.
I had finished the first tiny bottle of wine when he came back. He was sweating. "That was great," he said. "Just what I needed. You know, to unwind."
I took a long swig from the second bottle.
"Whoa," he said. "Aren't you already fucked up enough?"
I twitched again.
"What's wrong with your face?" he asked.
I pretended to browse the airline's safety guidelines, as though already preparing for something to go wrong. I imagined checking the booklet as the plane was going down, using the index to find the appropriate page.
He put his hand on my leg. He watched my face twitch. "Is there something you want to tell me?"
"Why are you going to New York?" I asked, trying to change the subject. I pulled my leg away from him.
"I'm in school there. Columbia. I'm pretty smart, you know. Sort of a genius." He paused. "I was just on vacation with this guy I met on the Internet. We went to Hawaii."
"Cool," I said. "Do you like it there?"
"Yeah," he said. "New York's great, I guess. School blows, though. I don't go to class that often. I dance at this club on the weekends. It's one of those new zombie clubs. You know, with the lights up here? The pool of blood?" He gestured, as if to show me. "Anyway, they have tons of money, and they like to give it to me."
I pictured him dancing shirtless for old zombie perverts holding dollar bills. I definitely needed to find out the name of that club.
"How old do you think I am?" I asked.
He looked at me again and shrugged. "Twenty-five. But you could pass for older or younger. It depends. You married?"
"Hey, no offense," he said. "You seem like the type, that's all. The Hawaii guy was married. Huge mistake. You've got to be free."
I kissed him then, shoving the back of his head against the window. I kissed him in the clouds, hovering, going nowhere, trying way too hard. He struggled to catch his breath. "Fuck," he said. "What the fuck are you doing?" But he was smiling, probably still horny, like a machine.
I finished the wine. "I need more," I said.
"Maybe you've had enough. You look a little green. And your ear—"
"You don't know me," I said.
He put his hands up, relenting. "Whatever."
The flight attendant was nowhere to be found. I popped another Valium. The guy's eyes went wide and he said, "You okay? Seriously, is something wrong?"
"I was dumped," I said. "Recently."
"Why?" he asked, after a respectful silence.
Because he fucked someone else and then felt bad about it. Because I had no money and was entirely too predictable. Because I wasn't a zombie. Well, I sure showed him. If only he still cared.
"Fuck you," I said sharply.
I sighed. "It doesn't matter. I don't know. I mean, I know, but it doesn't matter. Or whatever. I think it had just gone on for too long. And he had turned into, you know—"
"Yeah," he said. "It's happening a lot now. They're everywhere."
I looked at him for a few seconds, trying to figure out what color his eyes were. "I thought that maybe this would be a good idea," I said.
"We're having fun," he agreed, running a finger down from my temple to my chin.
Being a zombie is not fun. It's not fun being green. It's really hard work. You might think it's just a big bucket of fun, but it's totally not. It's a lonely business. Lots of late nights. And you start to forget things. You forget the taste of pancakes. You forget what your parents looked like. You don't recognize yourself in the mirror.
"No," I said. "I mean, the plane tickets. New York. The whole fucking thing. To just mix things up. But it was a mistake. This is wrong, definitely wrong."
"You've got to just let go," he said, but I wasn't listening. I just kept thinking, I don't know what to do. It was never supposed to be like this. You think you'll love someone forever, and that they'll always be there, that they'll never turn into a zombie. I was such a dumbass for thinking that.
But things had been really good for a while. Just last Christmas, Gabe surprised me by showing up in Ft. Lauderdale where I was visiting my mom, because he knew how much I wanted him there, even though he had originally said that he had to work through the holiday. "I'd do anything for you," he said when he arrived in his rental car, probably paid for by the firm but that didn't matter. He was there.
I had a cat when I was a kid, and I used to be scared that she would somehow get out of the house and be lost, wandering the streets alone and afraid, so I made a bunch of signs with a picture of her on them and the word MISSING written across the top. Just in case. I imagined myself coming home one night and calling out for the cat, only to find that she was no longer there. I wouldn't have made any signs yet, and I would have to spend all night making them, and by then she could be anywhere; Miami, Mexico, somewhere warmer and better. I would never find her. But if I had signs ready, then I wouldn't lose anything ever again. When things happened to go missing, they would quickly be snatched up.
But suddenly one day Gabe was gone, and there was just this zombie with wet green skin, stuff oozing out of places that shouldn't ooze. I hadn't made any signs. I wasn't prepared, and I had done nothing to prevent it from happening. Nothing to prepare for the way it would feel.
Letting go is not as easy as it sounds. And even though everyone tells you to do it, you never want to. You want to hold on forever. You don't want to fall with no one there to catch you. You want to imagine that there will always be someone there, arms open wide, waiting.
Letting go is actually the hardest thing in the world to do.
The loudspeaker in the plane suddenly crackled to life, and the flight attendant announced that we were now beginning our initial descent. And then we were falling quickly, too quickly, through the clouds, through a rapidly darkening sky, toward the neatly separated squares that can only be seen from above. They were starting to merge. It was all just land, no borders, just a mean pile of dirt, hard and unforgiving.
I clawed at the ceiling. I pushed. I would have climbed out, gone up and up, anything but down. I was sobbing. "Get me out of here," I said. "God, please."
We hit bottom. Everything stopped. We examined the wreckage: physical, yes, with the faint smell of fire, something melting and burning away.
I had to realize that some things were just lost. They were just gone.
"What the fuck happened?" asked my seatmate, but he wasn't my seatmate anymore. We were outside, standing, then doing the zombie walk, the zombie talk: everyone was. We did it together. The plane melted away behind us. We could see the city in the distance. It was waiting for us. We began to swagger toward it. Zombies are really good at putting one foot in front of the other. They're really good at not looking back.
It was night, suddenly, or maybe from now on everything would always be dark. Zombies can only see in the dark, after all. The city itself was dark, and dead: the proverbial great unknown. None of us had ever been there, and none of us would ever leave. Gabe didn't know I was there. I hadn't given him a forwarding address. But that was okay, all of a sudden. That was fine. I could figure out how to be a zombie all by myself, just for me, at my own pace.
Maybe being a zombie wasn't so bad after all. I could be a really great zombie. I could be anything I wanted.
Everything started rising up, bubbling to the surface: details, inexplicably, were purged. I was ready to purge. I turned to the Abercrombie boy, the Columbia student, the dancer. I already knew too much about him, too many little things that I wouldn't be able to forget later. But he was changing too, already. Soon I would barely recognize him. He said, "Don't you fucking dare," in his new zombie voice with his new zombie face, but I purged—something green, glowing, and terrible, something that smelled a little bit like Gabe—all over him.
I just let go.