Death wears a rose in her lapel. It is orange and mottled, like a sunset or the skin of a peach. It is full and open and bright.
I am in a cafe in Milan, and I have just received my first cappuccino ordered in Italian, my grandmother’s language. I have never been in a cafe in Milan before, and as I sit fidgeting, sipping, nervously checking my phone every half minute, I feel more aware of my Americanness than I ever have on the fourth of July. I have been in Europe less than twenty-four hours.
She sits down across from me at my little table. Her suit is black and exquisite and perfectly tailored, but this is Milan, and so that seems only fitting. Underneath the jacket there is a crisp white oxford, the top button undone, and a silk vest the color of ash. Her pocket handkerchief is neatly folded.
Her head is a skull wearing a fedora. Her hands, which she clasps and rests on the table, are slender. And pale. And strange.
For a while I just stare at her, and then I say something like “oh” very softly and try to swallow the lump in my throat.
She cocks her head.
Yes, she says. I suppose that sums it up.
My last girlfriend, when I told her I never wanted to get married or have kids, said something like “oh” as well. We’d been together for almost a year. We were on her couch, watching a movie. She broke up with me three weeks later.
I don’t remember crying after she dumped me. She didn’t do it in person. She called me, gave me her speech, told me she was sorry but it just wasn’t working. We were too different. We wanted different things.
“Oh,” I said, and we were both silent. I was the first to hang up.
Death takes off her hat and sets it on the table. I realize I am staring and look away, think about reaching for my coffee, but my arms don’t want to move. A waiter comes by and asks her in Italian if she wants anything. She orders a double espresso and biscotti and he scribbles on his pad and walks away. My mouth feels dry.
Death glances around at the other customers, at the counter, out the window.
Charming little place, she says, tapping her finger idly on the table. I don’t think I’ve been here since the sixties.
I finally manage to grab my cup and nearly choke on a mouthful of lukewarm coffee. I put the cup back down. I want to ask her a question, something important, but I’m not sure what. I think that if I can just figure out what to ask her everything will be all right, and maybe the room will stop spinning.
The waiter comes back with her espresso in a tiny porcelain cup and her biscotti on a tiny porcelain plate and she pays him, the Euros rustling like leaves. She takes a sip of the coffee. She folds her hands on the table in front of her.
I imagine this must come as a bit of a shock she says, sounding kind, sounding patient.
My voice doesn’t work when I try to answer her, so I just nod, jerking my head up and down. For some reason all I can think about is the fact that I haven’t washed my hair since before getting on the plane. I am wearing pale blue skinny jeans and a plaid shirt and boat shoes, an outfit that would have fit in better in a coffee shop in San Francisco than an Italian cafe.
It’s all right, she says. Most people are a little flustered at first.
This time from the lips of a girl from my high school art class. I’d just told her I wanted to be a movie director someday.
She said “that sounds like fun” and she smiled. I flushed.
We were sixteen. It was after dark. We were sitting in the empty dugout of a little league field near her house, passing a wine cooler back and forth, back and forth.
“I want to be a scientist,” she said. “Like, a marine biologist or an oceanographer or something.”
I’d brought a cheap, battery powered lantern with us and hung it on a peg board that must have been for hats or jackets or something. Its glow was pale and silvery, like moonlight.
“That sounds cool,” I said, feeling, or imagining I could feel, the alcohol in my stomach.
She grinned. “Maybe someday we could make a documentary together!”
I smiled back, liking the idea, liking that she liked it, that my body was so close to hers. “Yeah!” I said, and smiled, and took another sip of the too-sweet drink.
She giggled, moved as if to take the bottle but instead she leaned in close and kissed me. I kissed her back. Her mouth was sweet and soft and she put her hand on my cheek and I felt a kind of ache in every corner of my body. She was the first person I ever fell in love with.
Death dips the tip of a biscotti into her espresso and takes a bite.
Do you want another coffee? she asks.
I look at her, blink a few times. She points at my half finished cappuccino.
It’s probably cold by now. Which is probably my fault. Come on, I’ll buy you another.
She starts to turn, to look for the waiter to call him over, but I shake my head.
“No thanks,” I manage to say, and nearly jump at the sound of my own voice. It is small and raspy.
Something to eat, then? The biscotti isn’t half bad.
“No thanks. I’m . . . I’m not really hungry.”
She nods. I understand.
We are quiet. She finishes her biscotti and her coffee and leans back in her chair. Her casualness, her cool, is beginning to get on my nerves.
“So . . . So what happens?” I ask. “Do I have a heart attack or something? How long do I even have?”
She lowers her head a little. It seems like she is staring at her hands, which are fidgeting slightly, but without eyes it’s hard to tell.
No, not a heart attack, she says. You don’t actually die here. It happens at a crosswalk, five blocks away, at precisely three fifty-nine. A car hits you while you’re walking back to your hotel. A taxi. It’s the driver’s thirtieth birthday, and he cradles you while you bleed out and a woman who saw the whole thing calls an ambulance. He thinks about you every day after, and your bloodied face is the last thing he sees before he dies sixty-two years later in a hospital in Rome, surrounded by his family.
I have to shut my eyes. The room is spinning again, and I feel like I’m going to vomit.
“Oh,” I say. “Fuck.”
“Oh, ah . . . that sounds nice, honey.”
This from my mom. I was Skyping with my parents on the faded couch in my tiny apartment. I’d just told them I was going on vacation to Milan. Alone. In three days.
The connection had gone momentarily blurry, but I was pretty sure my father was frowning.
“You know, honey, plane tickets are pretty expensive. When your mom and I flew out last summer to visit we paid—”
“It’s okay, Dad,” I said. “I’ve actually been saving up for this for a while now. Well, not exactly for this. For a trip, for sure, I just didn’t know where to. But I was browsing this travel site last night, and there was this deal on a round trip to Milan, so I just . . . bought the tickets.”
My father’s eyebrows were skeptical. My mother’s seemed to agree, but her words said: “Well, I think it sounds lovely. You haven’t been on a proper vacation since before college.”
“Honey, I just don’t think it’s wise,” my father said. “Three days isn’t enough time to plan a trip.”
I sighed. I’d sighed almost every Tuesday night, at least once, since moving to the west coast after college. Three years of weekly Skype calls, of reassuring them that I was fine.
“That’s actually the point, dad. I don’t want a big planned out trip with a schedule. I just want to go somewhere cool, relax, explore . . . take each day as it comes, you know?”
Dad started to say something, but my Wifi crapped out, and by the time it came back a few minutes later mom must have talked to him. He still seemed skeptical, but he didn’t try to talk me out of going. We said our goodbyes, our I love yous, and then I flipped on the TV to watch the news while I cooked dinner.
The waiter comes back and clears the table, asks if he can get us anything else. Death says “no thank you” in Italian and I just shake my head. I check my phone: 2:17 PM. I try to figure out how many minutes I have left, but my brain is no longer capable of simple math.
A thought strikes me.
“You just told me how I die,” I say. My heart is pounding, and I’m sure every ounce of adrenaline I have must be blitzing through my veins. “That means—that means I know how I die, which means I won’t, right? All I have to do is just not do that, and then I don’t die!”
I am pretty sure death sighs. It’s hard to tell without lungs.
I’m afraid it doesn’t work that way, she says. Dying isn’t like going to the dentist; you can’t cancel your appointment, and you can’t just blow it off.
“But . . . but then, I mean, why are you here? If I’m going to die no matter what, why tell me?”
She looks at me. I’ve been looked at before by people and felt like their eyes could see my soul, but that feeling pales in comparison with this. I shiver, clutch the table and feel as though the room has just lost its gravity, like I’ve come suddenly untethered from the world. When death looks at me, I know that she can see everything, and that next to her I am unimaginably small.
I sob, once. Death looks away.
I’m sorry, she says. I truly am.
I shudder. I am breathing heavily, like I’ve just run a mile. Gravity is back and I have never felt so heavy before, so physical and present. Just breathing in is electrifying.
You can’t run, because there is nowhere to run to, she says. Everything happens somewhere.
“You mean, like, multiple universes? Like in another universe I’m not here? I’m sitting on a beach in Miami?”
She hesitates a moment. Something like that, yes.
“So . . . so that me, she doesn’t die?”
Not today. Not in Milan.
I nod, and nod again, and just keep nodding for a while. It’s the only thing my body seems capable of.
“How many mes are there?” I ask.
She sighs, this time I’m sure. Not as many as you might think. People . . . they behave in predictable ways. You can change variables—the weather, the location, the time of day—but in the end humans are who they are. There are only so many ways it can all play out.
I watch the waiter clear a table; take the orders of a young, smiling couple; bring an old man a cup of coffee. What is the me in Miami be thinking about? Is she reading a book? Something I always meant to read but never got around to? Does she think about me? I’ve never thought about her, not until now. I’ve never given much thought to what might have been.
Death is looking at me again, but this time with her normal gaze. I can still feel gravity.
You want to ask again.
Well then, shoot.
I turn back to her. She’s wearing gloves, that’s why her hands look strange. Bone-white silk that hugs closer than skin.
“Why are you here? Why tell me what’s going to happen?”
Because you want to know. You want to be awake when you die, to see it coming. You’re not afraid of dying, just of being dead. The thought of going in your sleep makes you shiver.
I shiver. It’s true. How I want to be awake. But I also want to be ninety.
I cross my arms. “I won’t do it. I won’t go, not today.”
Yes, you will.
“No!” I slam my fist against the table and a spike of pain drills through my hand. A few heads turn nervously.
Death rubs the bone beneath her eyes. Yes, you will. You will die, and the sun will set, and millions of Italians will go to sleep. Your parents will weep for you. The first two years after are hell. They both think they won’t make it, but somehow they do, and they learn to be happy again, for your sake. They die within a week of each other in a retirement home in Florida. Their friends at the home give them a lovely service.
I close my eyes, grip the table so hard my fingers ache. I want to throw up. I want to scream.
“But I want to live,” I say.
You know why.
And I do, but it still hurts. Someone is stirring their coffee, clinking the spoon against the cup and the sound is so loud and I don’t want it to stop, but it does and I can’t hold the breath in my lungs. The selfish part of me is angry; I want to be the one crying at the funeral, not lying like a doll in the casket. I want to feel that grief, feel it twisted up inside of me, feel it cluttered up in my head and in my soul. But someone has to be the pain, and someone else has to feel it.
Death puts on her hat, stands up. She turns toward the door, pauses, glances back and meets my gaze. For a moment my eyes stare into the dark of her skull, and then she leaves.
I check my phone. I pull up a picture of my parents, from the time they came to see me in California. I open my contacts to text them and my fingers freeze and my eyes glaze over with tears. I type “Hey” and below it “Just checking in” and “Milan is cool, great coffee” and “I love you” and hit send before I start sobbing. Before I lose my nerve.
Deep breath. Eyes closed, and just focus on breathing, the expansion of your lungs and how good it feels.
I slip my phone into my pocket, leave thirty Euros—all the cash left in my wallet—on the table as a tip. I take one last breath and then I leave, and the smell of coffee lingers in my nostrils.
I walk like an infant, like this kind of motion is new and every step requires concentration. And maybe that’s true. Maybe I’ve never really walked before, never really felt the movement of my muscles, appreciated the mechanics of putting one foot in front of the other. All around me the gray world seems much too bright, much too vibrant and beautiful.
I’ve gone a few blocks, maybe enough. There’s a crosswalk, a few people waiting on the other side. The signal changes and they cross and I hurry to reach the walkway before the signal changes again. I stare at the red hand, at the last few seconds dripping by next to it. There’s a smudge of motion coming closer and I step out and all the seconds are gone
the pain is blinding and sudden
it fills me up
it smothers me
it is all that I am and all that I feel and all I can imagine
all I can remember
I remember a kite, and my father grinning
and baking cookies with gran and
my best friend in kindergarten
and kissing Sarah Prescott during recess
my mother explaining sex
my mother comforting me when I fell after we took the training wheels off of my bike
I remember jumping into the lake, the icy shock
how brave I felt
how I dared my friends to jump in too
my apartment and my plants
a dream, a job I wanted a life a future
There is a tunnel, and I walk through it. It’s dark everywhere but straight ahead, where there is light so pure it looks like every color all at once.
But it’s not over.
Now there is a face, a man’s, and he is crying. Voices are screaming, sirens blaring somewhere in the distance. I think he’s trying to apologize, but my Italian is too poor to be certain. There is a woman behind him, above him, and she is wearing a rose in her lapel. She reaches out,
offers me her hand