I was never born. I was nearly born, but never took a breath outside of my mother's womb. When I emerged from her, reaching beyond the tunnel-ended light, I careened toward a light that blazed with the luminescence of a quadrillion white dwarf stars and continued to fall until my eyes opened and I hovered over what I now know was unmitigated grief. Though I was not equipped at that time with the tools to process the tragedy I was witnessing, I have since learned to understand this single, solitary moment of what should have been my life. Ever since the day I was not born, I have been here, left with just one experience upon which to base an eternity of rumination.
Always the know-it-all, his precociousness was not new to a single person who was familiar with him. Of course, it didn’t take long for perfect strangers to arrive at the same conclusion. From correcting his fourth-grade teacher’s grammar, to questioning the validity of the scientific method as inefficient and restrictive to innovation in seventh grade, to reducing the complete works of Hemingway to a first-person one-act monologue as a physics major in his junior year at university, he was incorrigibly obnoxious.
I cannot leave. I cannot live. I cannot escape the never-ending presence of one moment in time. I am without a sturdy tense.
Sports, economics, and midTwentieth-Century abstract expressionism all coalesced into magnificently eloquent diatribes that would both fascinate and infuriate his interlocutors. Nobody could argue because his words were packed more densely than a Britannica and, besides, he was always right. He wasn’t “always right,” in that disparaging, “he would never admit he was wrong,” way. He was, actually, always right. People could check his facts and challenge his computations—and they did—but he was never, ever, wrong. He could convince communists that free markets were more efficient and Yankees fans that Babe Ruth was better with the Red Sox.
As that first and only moment froze below me, I floated from the room and encountered many others—others who also lacked life. Staring down the corridor, I saw other creatures like me as they passed further up, embracing then joining the bright light: making it brighter and brighter still. Each time I approached the ever-brightening light, it moved away. As I sped toward it, its retreat was equally emphatic.
Worse than that, he was a total stud. He turned the old cliché, “Every girl wants to be with him and every guy wants to be him,” on its tired ear. Indeed, every guy and girl wanted to be with him. It had nothing to do with being gay or straight; it was an attraction to what Kant would have described as the sublime: innately, indescribably, and unassailably beautiful. He was a specimen of Davidic perfection. From the sandy blonde and wavy full collection of locks upon his head to his massive sized-thirteen feet, every part of his body was flawless. Not too thin to be a pitcher, not too wide to be a quarterback, not too short to be a forward, not too dense to be a swimmer, and between academic bowl titles, he was a four-season athlete in a three-season division. Despite his athletic success, the wisdom of coaches eluded him and the camaraderie of teammates was ephemeral. Teams could neither win without him nor celebrate with him.
I wandered down corridors over the bustle of doctors and nurses, over waiting rooms and chapels, and watched the living pray for those who would inevitably race by into the light. I watched the desperate, the bereaved, the hopeless,the relieved. Without voice and without form, I could only muster the power of observation. I was but a receptor of the boundless lives of others, caught up with them in silent powerlessness.
There was nothing he couldn’t do, except make friends. Most of the time, even his parents didn’t want to be around him. In fact, the only reason that anybody endured him was to have sex with him, which he ungrudgingly did with anybody who paid him any attention. Thus it seemed, to the eternal confusion of his parents, that, because of the constant stream of new people in and out of his bedroom, he was the most popular kid in school. Truly, he was well known; one might say “famous.” If he was popular, it was that sad kind of “I know who he is and I can’t stand to be in his presence” brand of popular. He neither noticed nor cared about his infamy. His parents were thankful that he had (what they figured were many) friends; it excused their callous coldness toward him.
I learned that there were places, over certain beds in certain rooms, where souls like mine would linger before being absorbed into the light. I learned to communicate with these passers-by, those who would acknowledge me and who were not frightened by me. As they lingered on the edge of death, I lingered differently. Having never lived, I was not dead. Having never died, I was a wholly frightening being to most who I encountered. I was a monster.
Incessantly impertinent and ridiculously proper, he was driven by a force that nobody could identify. Perhaps, some theorized, he was an alien placed on Earth to collect information about its inhabitants; his creators made him too perfect to be an effective spy. Others drew parallels to Jesus, who was himself a know-it-all, often speaking in riddles and annoying monologues; perhaps he was the new Son of God. Still others postulated that he was part of a government conspiracy, cloned from the remnants of the world’s smartest—yet most socially inept—figures: Einstein, Hitler, Jefferson.Once exposed to him, people just wanted to forget him so that they could feel better about themselves. In rooms of greats, ides of jealousy always fell upon him.
I met a spirit lingering over an old man's body. The spirit spoke to me with a tenderness that was new, one that acknowledged that I was but a breath away from past humanity. He spoke and I listened. For the first time since the day I wasn't born, I was treated with humanity.
Nobody ever told him “No.” The best anybody could muster was feigned apathy or indignant acquiescence. When, after graduating with his PhD in Experimental Nuclear and Particle Physics from MIT—he delivered a brilliant dissertation on Dark Energy that outshone previous research by decades— he decided to join the Peace Corps, nobody gave it a second thought.
Before he joined the light, he taught me to speak. He gave me words. Through his acknowledgment, he gave me form. With words and form, he gave me thought. With words and thought, I learned. My observation became knowledge.
I was but a camera.
Those who spared him a second thought could never fathom what drove him. A hint to his drive might have been discerned by a careful reading of his dissertation introduction, had anybody bothered to study it. Jumping over the literary flourish and directly into scientific facts, many missed that he presented a critical method—a replacement for science itself—which indicated he had touched the origins of the universe. The ends and the means of science were too precise, he argued. The corralling of facts and figures to bring order out of chaos was not to understand the universe. Rather, science had brought humanity to the brink of impertinence, threatening to leave the power of the soul, expressed in Kantian constructions of beauty, denuded. The statistics and postulates in the body of his paper were but a joke: three hundred pages of what not to do.
Only one member of his committee even commented on the Introduction, and that with the red words writ large upon the final page: “self indulgent.”
When the old man left, I sought another then another then another: emerging from the bodies of women and children, some of whom seemed far too young to be passing by. All of these "souls," as I came to understand they were, passed by in the same moment in which I was frozen. They spoke of time as though it were something that passed, but I could only measure the passage of souls through my emerging consciousness and toward the ever-increasing and increasingly elusive light.
I resided in the corridors of an immitigable and haunting presence, creating and consuming snapshots of the same scene from countless perspectives.
“Go,” was the admonition from his family.
“Go,” was the scream from his academic peers.
“Go,” was the collective sigh of the civilized world.
Perhaps, they thought, he could be of some good to people who could not understand what he was saying and thus could overlook his ridiculous genius. Perhaps some work in the mundane would teach him humility: build a school; dig a trench; exist in the basics of humanity.
From these passers-by, I learned in fleeting lessons about life and death. I learned that some were ready to fill the light; I learned that some were not. I learned the words to describe these things. I learned to understand, though I could not feel. I learned that, because I had no soul, I would not feel. I gained the voice to ease the transition for those who had no choice in the matter.
Within a week of arriving in North Central Africa, he contracted malaria. Within two weeks, he was back in the United States, in a hospital room fighting for his life. His perfect constitution was as ill-suited as America’s in that part of the world. The malaria so weakened his immune system that a secondary viral infection, something like a meningitis attacked his brain. In order to quell the swelling, doctors induced a medical coma from which they later could not resurrect him.
He was human, after all.