(Horror stories about freedom.)
The old cliche goes something like, “if you’ve got nothing to live for, you’re able to do anything.” High school kids all over the world write their own versions of it in the margins of textbooks and on bathroom walls. It makes them feel consequential. Or significant. Or free. Or something.
They’re not, of course. But they’ve got enough youthful optimism to keep the bottle of pills away from their stomachs or the razor away from their soft wrists.
Well, most of them. A few can see things for how they are. They act accordingly.
And good for them, really. It’s that youthful initiative the baby boomers say is absent in kids these days. Someone should tell the boomers they haven’t been looking in the right place. If they checked the morgue, they’d see slabs full of proactivity and initiative. There’s a bunch of real success stories cooling and congealing in there.
Is that cynical?
When I was nineteen, I convinced my boyfriend, Mitchell, to kill himself. His last word was “God.”
My name is Anita. Close enough.
When Mitchell and I met, I knew he had cancer. It appealed to me. Thinking about masses of tiny, voracious cells rampaging through something that had once been healthy and pure was terribly romantic. Familiar, too.
For as long as I’ve known myself, I’ve been a destroyer of health and purity. Boys. Girls. Men. Women. Relationship after relationship always yielded ruin. I remember being five and kissing the lips of my friend, Min Ju, before and after telling her how her parents would die someday and leave her alone.
That first kiss came out of nowhere. Min Ju was confused and pushed me away, insisting that I stop it. Then I told her about the mortality of the only people who mattered in her tiny world. The look on her face was one of astonished terror. I kissed her again. That time, she didn’t push away. She held on, her hot tears soaking my face as she tried to grasp the meaning of loss as it metastasized through her innocence.
I knew right then how badly she needed me. My closeness. My comfort.
It was my cue to push her away. And I did. The last memory I have of Min Ju was her sobbing on her hands and newly-skinned knees. She wasn’t allowed to see me anymore after that.
It didn’t matter. Nothing did.
Even the most dense person reading this has already psychoanalyzed me. Haven’t you? What’s the label you’re reaching for? Hateful? Narcissistic? Nihilistic? The big, silent “P” of “psychopathic?”
Those are my favorites. They’re the old classics, like a 70s rock station of personality flaws. So if I told you that experience with Min Ju was the first of countless others, using tactics to systematically break down people who cared about me, what would you want to happen to me?
It’s okay. Let your imagination run wild.
I’ve had people wish death on me. Wish torture on me. R*pe. Imprisonment. It’s never happened, though. None of it. No, I’ve made it through everything with little damage. So what was I going to do? Stop?
No. No, I don’t stop.
I won’t. Especially now.
After I saw inside, nothing stops.
To save time, let’s dispense with the details of the others like Min Ju. Just imagine all ages and races and sexes crying and asking variations on “why?” as I walk away. “Why are you like this?” “Why do you do what you do?” That’s all. I don’t think of them much, so why should you? Exactly.
I want to talk about Mitchell.
Mitchell was special. And not just because he was being eaten alive.
Mitchell was sensitive. He was an artist. He cared about things. Even when he was at his sickest, he spoke of charity. Of service. Of duty to his fellow man. At my lowest points, I actually fell for it.
“Hey Anita, what are you doing?”
I looked up, my eyes bleary and red.
“You’ve had your head in your hands for the last twenty minutes. I thought you were sleeping until I saw you were actually pushing. You okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. You know when you press against your eyes, you can see shapes and colors and stuff? For a minute, I thought I could make something out of all of it.”
Mitchell grinned, making himself look more skeletal than usual. “Oh yeah? What did you see?”
“I don’t know. You interrupted me before I could find out.”
“Yeah. I’m gonna do it again now. Want to actually leave me alone this time?”
“Yeah. Sorry.” He turned around and went back into the bedroom. I could tell his strength was waning.
I dropped my head in my hands and began to push against my eyes with my palms. Fireworks erupted in my vision and formless masses bloomed.
My mind whirled as I watched undulations and oscillations of undefined shapes as they expanded and collapsed. I felt the blood rushing through my eyes and eyelids, and, for a second, I was certain I could see the individual cells traversing the capillaries.
“Watch,” a voice in my head demanded.
“Watch?” I whispered. Part of me realized I should be frightened, but I didn’t feel any alarm. Only peace.
“Watch what I show you,” the voice replied. “Observe.”
I didn’t reply. I only pressed harder. Shapes coalesced. Lights calmed. My life sprawled before me, but not from my perspective. It was from those I’d encountered.
I watched and listened with Min Ju’s eyes and ears as she sobbed on the ground and from Derek’s as he wept in bed and from Lorissa’s as she screamed that she was going to kill herself if I left. They were all there. Bill and Ramona and Consuela. Juan. Jill. Everyone. All in throes of loss and desperation. All because of me. And I towered over them all.
I focused on all the events with a level of attention I didn’t know I possessed – a singular fascination at the power I commanded. Seeing it all happening at once struck me with such force I realized I was crying. But my tears weren’t of regret. They were of admiration.
Mentions of my name floated in and out of my consciousness as the events of my life played out over and over.
“Anita,” I heard, as Ramona tore out a fistful of her hair after I told her I wasn’t interested anymore.
“Anita,” I heard, as Juan clutched his chest and begged for an answer about why I’d been cheating on him with Consuela.
“Anita,” I heard, as Min Ju clutched my arms before I pushed her onto the pavement.
“Anita,” I heard. Anita. Anita. Anita. Anita.”
The voice wasn’t coming from my head anymore. It was from somewhere else. I pulled my hands from my eyes. The scenes from my life stopped. The world reappeared, cold and bright and blurry. So blurry.
It took a while before I could see clearly and even longer to get my bearings. I looked at the clock. Twenty hours had gone by. My wrists were locked and swollen. My jeans were soaked.
It was Mitchell’s voice. I turned toward the sound. It was coming from the bathroom.
“What?” I replied, my voice low and robotic.
“Oh my God,” he muttered. “I thought you’d left. I thought you left me alone.”
I got up, my joints protesting, and hobbled to the bathroom. Mitchell was wedged between the toilet and the bathtub. It looked like he’d fallen and hadn’t had the strength to get up.
“What happened?” he asked. The genuine concern in his voice provoked feelings in me I hated. Feelings I pushed down as quickly as they bubbled to the surface.
“I fell asleep,” I replied, and helped him up. He seemed no worse for wear.
“Asleep for a whole da–,” he started, but didn’t finish. “Can you help me clean up?”
I obliged. A half hour later, he was clean and in bed.
“Anita, I hurt so badly.”
“Probably the fall,” I said, thinking about everything I’d seen over those last twenty hours. “You’ll be fine.”
“It’s not the fall. I’m not getting better. I’m not going to, either. I know it. You know it.”
Mitchell stared into my eyes. I felt a flicker of energy in my chest.
“No, you’re not going to get better,” I told him, my voice rising with barely-constrained enthusiasm. “You’ll be dead in what, months? Weeks? There’s no coming back from what you’ve got.”
Mitchell looked shocked. They were words he’d used before to describe himself, but never ones I’d repeated back.
“Yeah. No coming back,” he agreed.
I glanced over at the dresser. It was covered in prescription bottles. I got up and poured the ones for his chronic pain into his palm.
“There you go,” I announced. “Do you want water?”
He nodded as tears trickled from his eyes.
“I love you, Anita,” he whispered.
I didn’t reply. He swallowed pill after pill, and when he was finished, he lay back and gazed at my face.
I watched him looking at me and pushed away his hand when he reached for mine. He left it extended, as if begging for a final bit of human contact.
I thought about Min Ju, kneeling and sobbing and looking to me for comfort after I’d injected the reality of death into her young mind. I’d done that. Me.
“You could have left him on the bathroom floor, you know,” I thought.
“Watch,” came the voice in my head. “Listen.”
I obeyed, pressing against my eyes as Mitchell muttered my name. The sound wasn’t coming from his lips. Colors and lights burst, and then coalesced into coherent shapes. It was Mitchell’s perspective. I saw myself sitting beside him, pressing my eyes with such ferocity my that hands were white.
“Please hold me,” Mitchell thought, his words as clear in my head as if he had spoken them directly into my ear.
“Anita, I need you. Don’t let me die alone. Why won’t you hold me? Did I do something wrong? Please.”
I pulled my hands from my eyes and watched him.
His breathing shifted, his eyes widening. I crossed my arms across my chest. The flicker of energy that had been building was now a wildfire. Without intending, I felt my lips stretching into a wide, carefree grin.
“God,” Mitchell whispered, and exhaled his last breath.
I studied him, contemplating what he’d just said.
It took a moment, but I realized he was right.
It’s why I do what I do. It’s what I live for.
And it’s why I’m able to do anything.