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Like All Stories
Benedict Ciantar

Like all stories, this one has two endings. There is the happy one, the one that finishes. This is the one that resolves, that leaves you with a sense of purposeful accomplishment and meaning. The one that explains everything. This is the ending I want to write. Or, to put it more accurately, the one that needs to be written. Now, even as I tap out these words, it is waiting impatiently for me to bring it to life. But I never will. I'll never let it out

Then there is the other, darker conclusion that continues to bully its way to the head of the queue. The one that none of us wanted to meet. The one that, in its arrogance, has claimed the title of "truth". This is the one that has gripped us by the jugular and dragged us kicking and screaming to the finishing line and the one that now holds me, too, in its grasp. The one that will never let me go. The one that I will never understand.

It was like a bungi jump. The one that went wrong. When suddenly you look up and above your feet somewhere you notice a rubbery end flapping frantically through the air and there is nothing you can do about it. Nothing you can think of that will justify or give meaning to the event. Nothing that profound occurs in such a short and unexpected moment. It is only through time, through the retelling, that the banality of your thoughts gain significance. But that, of course, is someone else's experience.

Press Escape to Continue, it said. The computer screen, gaining unrealised significance, glowing brilliant in the darkening room. Somewhere, a tree falls, but no one hears. Press Escape to Continue. A relentless hum the only sound. Press Escape to Continue. Press Escape to Continue. Then suddenly, without notice, a hundred coloured windows move towards him through space.

His head cracks the floor. Fingers claw some non-existent insect. Eyelids remain ajar. Gravity presses the body to the carpet, holding it there, gloating, triumphant in the wrestle. But it is not over yet. A blanket drains from the bed. A foot, kicking, throws a shoe. It gently settles, heel up under the desk. Raindrops splatter against glass, a few making it through on to the corner of a pillow. And still it is not over. Still the internal implosion, the twitching of limbs, the beetroot temples. The bathroom light, trapped, suffocates behind a closed door. Somewhere, in the growing silence, a phone rings. But he does not hear it. And still it is not yet complete. Still, but not complete. The only sound now the persistent patter of rain.

When they found him they didn't notice the inquisitive, startled expression in which they so often found pleasure. Other, more pressing needs, concerned them. Nor did they notice the pillow on his bed, soaked, swollen like a loaf of soggy bread. Or the light bulb still glowing in the bathroom. Or the urgent ringing of the phone. And it did not occur to them that the screams echoing up from the street below were the desperate call of a neighbour, locked out for the entire evening. Nor did they notice the empty spoon on his desk, or the bloody syringe, or the flanelette shirts scattered across the floor, the colourful portrait of a stranger beating itself against the wall, urgently fighting the wind. In that petrified moment of uncertainty, as they skidded hopelessly down the knife-edge into the present, all they saw was their inevitable point of arrival. The mirrored wardrobe. The face staring back at itself.

But the coldness of death brings new life to him. Now, at his exit, the face that he never knew presents itself to him like an old friend. The one we knew, but hadn't seen for years. A momentary stranger, until the memories come flooding back and seep into your heart like the heroin eating his. This is what he sees. This is what he is seeing now. The face staring back. The one in the mirror that was always there when he looked. The one that has always been there.

But we are all different now. It is only the haunting whisper of memory that links us to our other selves. Only the pictures we carry around that remind us that somewhere, at some stage, someone existed who is vaguely recognisable, almost familiar, and that we identify as the self. But there is no real proof of this existence. The past is an illusion, a fiction, recreating itself every moment of everyday, in every memory, laughing as it does so, at our need for certainty, of coherence. It waits impatiently, lurking behind like a frightened child pulling faces, for the inevitable realisation that we will only brave the "truth" when it has left us forever.

It is only when you stop moving that the past catches up with you. Or you with it. Like when you were a kid at school playing follow the leader and suddenly you decided to stop, to dig your heels in, just to see what would happen. And the next thing you know you're at the bottom of a pile of grey woollen bodies whose odours overpower and envelop you. The stench is foul, exciting and seductive. This is what he is thinking about. The combination of pasts. The mingling of their scents, swimming, swelling beneath his nostrils, repositioning, shaping and joining themselves into a new, magnificent image that springs up giant-like in the mirror before him.

But his past was too overwhelming. Or he was incapable of supporting the weight. One of the two. Or both. Or neither. When someone close to you dies, we nurture our wounds through generalisations. Somewhere, within the vagueness of plurality, lies the space to escape, to avoid confronting the personal. Occasionally something slips through. Something always slips through. A throw away line, a twitch, an argument with a lover. What the third person supresses will always impact on the first, the "I", the self. The past will always get you, one way or another.

The truth is, he was probably dead for several hours before the door opened that morning. I like to tell myself that he was still there somewhere, lingering in the shadows, holding on until we got there. Why? I don't know. Maybe it was just to hear his name one last time. That single word, shouted, in this case, but his nonetheless, puncturing the stale air. And in like a greedy hound the voracious appetite of liberation sucks the last remnants of life from him like a sponge, slurping him up, spreading him out through the universe, expanding it with him, thinner and thinner, wrapping him around the stars, spinning them, his perception melting like hot plastic then solidifying into a foundation of understanding, becoming engorged with the riches of experience until all that is left of him is the face.


Staring back at itself.

But of course this isn't his story. It is mine. The one I didn't want to write. Somewhere, in the telling, I have stumbled into the fruits of cohesion, of sense. But they are rotten and futile. He was here. Now he is not. That is the only Truth. An attempt to reorganise my understanding of him now that he has gone is to tell myself lies, to make his life resolve, which it did not. To contain it, which he could not. And how do I tell the truth of his life?

My computer says, Press Escape to Continue. But what do I press to escape?

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