“Tell me, Director, what will it feel like to live?”
I am whatever you want me to be — a dying flame, perhaps, or a blue orb of light. Technically I am soul #73459D, but I must confess that I like to picture myself as a human. It excites me. Life is meaningless here. The Pre-Existence is nothing but an eternal waiting room, where souls like me wander in aimless drift. All we can do is wait for the Screening, when the Director would invite us to the Theater and play us our future lives as if it were a movie. After watching our lives unfold, we would then decide whether to live. The ones who don’t want to proceed to earth would become parts of Nature: a droplet of water, a blade of grass, a tornado. Yet their choice always baffles me. Who wouldn’t want to live, to finally relish in the bliss of meaning and purpose? The hollowness of this dimension exhausts me. I crave any resemblance of direction.
As the Director scans the isles of his storage room searching for my film tapes, I entertain myself with the decor around me. The man must have spent much time conjuring up the illusion, for he was even meticulous enough to render every speck of dust on his billions of boxes of film. Eventually he pauses in front of a shelf. Under the flickering light, the mahogany glows with an engraving of the word “Cenozoic.” He opens a cardboard box labeled “20th Century,” and digs around until he pulls out a roll of film — my life. Before he inserts the tapes into the projector, he halts abruptly and asks me whether I’d like a cup of tea.
The meaninglessness of the question halts me. Since no senses exist in the Pre-Existence, there is no point in taking the effort to drink. It will taste like nothing, anyway. I pretend not to hear him, instead fixating my eyes on the screen. What will be my name? My appearance? My purpose? But the Director’s gaze clings onto me, unrelenting. I realize that he will not start the movie until I respond, so I force a polite chuckle. The screen remains a bleak darkness. After a few more stubborn moments, I give in and nod with reluctant confusion.
The screen brightens. I am greeted by the beaming grins of my mother and father. Clueless to their presence, I’ll declare my arrival with a piercing wail. I learn that my name will be Sisyphus — what an odd name to give a child born in the 20th century. I almost hate it. Except for my name, I will grow up in a family as ordinary as the Andersons of Father Knows Best. I will never hear my parents fight, for my war-vet father will be far more occupied with cigarettes, politics, and women on TV than any homely affairs. Regardless he will make a fine husband, doing just enough to satisfy his family and his factory job. My mother will listen, nod, smile; she’s a great listener, but I don’t think my father realizes that she weeps in silence. In a fairer world she might have become a renowned artist, but instead she will transfer her talent onto the colorful patches she sows on my pants. I will do fine in school, painfully average at everything except mathematics and Shakespeare, which I will never understand. As a teenager I will take a renewed interest in books — I am ecstatic, maybe I will become a late-blooming scholar. But soon I realize what really piqued my brief enthusiasm: Poe and Donne will find their way into the love letters I send girls who will never return the favor. And after a few more average years I will graduate from high school ranked 50th out of a class of 100. This must be some sort of joke.
I stare at the scrawny boy on the screen, whose unkempt hair and clumsily shaved chin make him no different from the average neighborhood kid. Evidently, I will be far too ordinary for college or any worldly pursuit. A sudden flurry of disappointment sweeps through me like Hurricane Camille. Nevertheless I grasp onto the lingering dashes of hope and watch on.
After high school I will spend two years directionless, taking on side jobs from lawn-mowing to lifeguarding. Most of my time will be spent listening to the Beatles or the Rolling Stones while I lie on the mattress in my mother’s basement. Nevertheless I will cherish these years: eighteen is one of the only times in life when disorientation is seen as understandable. At age twenty, I will discover my one genetic blessing — a remarkably steady hand — which of course destines me to a career of lens-grinding. With the subtle urge of my soft-spoken mother, who eventually decides to do something about the squatter in her basement, I will begin working for the local optometrist, grinding pieces of glass every day until they reach the perfect curvature. The tedious rhythm of habit will soon settle in. I see that I will be more sensible than to embrace God or any other illusion of purpose. Religion will not move me, nor will the cults of Wealth or Lust or Novelty. Every morning I will read the newspaper with faux curiosity (I’ll never really care about the dying children in Vietnam). Every night I will kneel before bed and pretend to yield myself to the Divine. Nevertheless, I will become the textbook example of an ideal citizen: obedient, sedulous, self-effacing, and most importantly, ignorant of all except what is prescribed to me. Maybe this senseless repetition would comfort me with a sense of delusive purpose — I wish it did — but if my lifeless eyes and ceaseless agitation were any indication, I will succumb to immeasurable boredom. Evidently, I will survive, but only that.
One summer night as I wander down the alleys of Cincinnati, a young woman will approach me and ask me whether I believed in Predestination. I will shake my head. She will laugh hysterically as if I were a fool, but when she opens her mouth to respond, a belated rush of alcohol poisoning will render her unconscious. I will carry her home on my back, unaware yet to the fact that she will become my future wife. I will learn to love her, sure, but I can’t help but ponder how much of that love stems from the tiredness of searching. She will have violent opinions about almost everything as if to show that, notwithstanding her plainness, she has a mind. Despite her endless yakking (of which I’ll be the sole victim), she will be loved by all who know her. On her birthday, the presents will come pouring in, far more than I will ever receive. A lot of the presents will be bottles of liquor. They know her well.
Despite her arrival, life will remain a source of dull frustration. Whenever I need to go somewhere, I will be out of gas. Whenever I want to cook something, I won’t have the right ingredients. Everyone in the house will pretend not to see the growing tower of filthy dishes and wine-stained glasses. Yet eventually the pile will become too pungent, too cumbersome, and an argument erupts soon after. These bursts of emotion will unfortunately be a rarity; most of the time, the house is painfully still. That is until Henry and Chelsea will be born. (I’m relieved that I’ll at least choose normal names for my children.) With every diaper I discard, I will feel something escape the grasp of my fingertips …. Or was it even there in the first place? And why do children cry at the most inconvenient times? Soon I will turn forty, to be confronted by a decade of thinning — thinning record collections, thinning enthusiasm, thinning hair. Rather than strength, my fingertips will be replaced with calluses of age, of lens-grinding, of that thing people call love. Slowly I will stop phoning my mother, for the tremble of her voice only reminds me of the emptiness of her retirement home. A new optometrist at work might temporarily distract me from the tedium of domesticity, and on lonely nights I will fantasize what could’ve been had the guilt of an affair not barred me from initiating anything. I will stop reading the newspaper (what’s the point, anyway) and start to nest on the living-room couch, deceiving myself with some comedy skit on TV. Seeing others live will at least make me feel some sort of stimulation. I will also discover my passion for key lime pie. Henry’s youth soccer team will win a state championship, while Chelsea will try a myriad of activities — ballet, flute, ice skating, photography, tennis, even competitive poker — only to conclude that she “doesn’t like anything.” I will let her be, for I’ll still be drowning in the mound of unironed uniforms and unmatched socks.
I’m starting to understand my name — it’s a curse, sentencing me to a life almost as meaningless as the punishment of Sisyphus. I will be no different from that Greek king, forever pushing a boulder in foolish futility. I feel like a deflating balloon. Surely lens grinding must not be my life purpose, nor will love, knowledge, or the monolith of dirty dishes. I will be born and I will grow up and I will marry and I will have children and then I will die, leaving this world the same damn way I find it. In a hundred years no one will remember me. I don’t even think my grandchildren know who I am. It seems that Fate will place me in a world where I’ll never belong. As I sulk in the meaninglessness of the whole endeavor, a fervent impulse taunts me with fantasies of destruction. “This is all the Director’s fault; he must have betrayed you,” it whispers. I imagine approaching the projector and ripping out the reels with a force so violent it transcends the borders of the Pre-Existence. Then I will tear, grind, shear, mince, massacre.
Some more dismally unremarkable years pass by, during which I will have to wave Henry, Chelsea, and my job goodbye. Instead, I will try to occupy myself with dogs and lawn maintenance, though without the guidance of a toddler’s cry or the rigidity of a nine to five, I will feel even more lost than before. One day a sudden lump in my chest will urge me to the hospital, where, after much examination, the doctor will point up three fingers — three years? Months? Days. As my wife erupts with tears, I will feel nothing, not even relief. The only thing I will remember from that day is the smell of whiskey on the crying woman next to me.
I sink into the black viewing chair, feeling utterly defeated. I don’t want to watch anymore. It’s been long enough that my initial disappointment has melted into a pool of pity and despair, which now burns my skin with acidity. Eventually a thick sludge forms and boils bitterly at the bottom of my heart. I’m starting to envy those who chose not to live, who escaped Nature by becoming part of It. How wise of them to become the punisher. I imagine what it will feel like to be a blade of grass. Or a torrent.
Suddenly I feel a tap on my shoulder. I want to ignore it, but the touch has a certain authority that I cannot bring myself to disobey. I turn around and see the Director, who smiles gently and points at the teacup on the side table next to me. “Your tea is getting cold, Sisyphus.”
I suppress my urge to scoff, instead wondering why he takes the effort of walking all the way from his seat in the back corner of the room just to remind me of an illusory teacup. Yet for whatever reason — annoyance, most likely, or perhaps some foolish hopefulness — I pick up the cup and take a small sip. Unsurprisingly it tastes like nothing; this is the Pre-Existence, after all. Why was I ever naive enough to think it would be different? Hurricane Camille creeps in with another wave of expectations failed. Yet as I sit on the black viewing chair with the cup in hand, I can’t help but imagine what tea might taste like on Earth: a sharp bitterness would probably overwhelm me, but that would quickly be overshadowed by the soothing embrace of heat. I hold the teacup closer to my gaze. Chamomile is primarily a yellow substance, yet when I study the edges of the cup where liquid meets lacquer, hints of crimson and umber and viridian start to peek through. As the remnants of tea swirl in my mouth, I try to envision its earthly aftertaste. It would probably reek of bitter grief, like an ending, but with time it would pass, and out of that mixture would emerge some semblance of mellow sweetness. I suspect it would be absolution. The man on the screen looks more pathetic now, his beard covered with gray fog, his scrawny limbs weak with the wear of time. But at least he gets to discover the aftertaste of chamomile, of “Hey Jude”, and of drunken kisses on his cheeks given by his wife. I envy him. I think to myself how it might be okay to grind glass for a living; how it might be okay to never appear as dashing as I envisioned; how it might be okay to marry an alcoholic; how it might be okay that I will never bother to try and stop her; how it might be okay to eat a whole key lime pie by myself in one sitting; how it might be okay to occasionally make an absolute pigsty of my car, and throw coffee cups, candy wrappers, half-eaten apples on the floor with abandon. When it gets too disgusting, I will just take it to the car wash and pay extra for the attendants to haul away the garbage and deodorize the moldy carpet.
I will be on my deathbed. Henry will not visit. “Too busy,” he will write in a card. I will try to forgive him. Chelsea will barge in with her five-year-old daughter, whom she will raise alone. She will mask her fear with complaints about traffic and the growing price of peas. I regret that I’ll have to leave them so soon; surely she would’ve appreciated some help with ironing and sock-matching. While my granddaughter, oblivious to the situation at hand, tries to show me a cartoon on her iPad, I will let out my final breaths. My wife will squeeze my hands more tightly than she did when we first fell in love. Her fingertips will glide over my wrinkled veins and leave behind her grape-scented sugars. I hadn’t cared to look at her closely before, but as I stare at the silver-haired woman projected on the screen, I realize that she is quite beautiful. Beneath the ventilator masking my face, I can almost make out a faint smile. I will become dust soon — a patch of dirt in some obscure cemetery of rural Ohio. Eventually, my wife will join me. And some day, another blade of grass will grow on top of us. If only chamomile flowers could withstand the Ohio winter.
The screen fades to darkness.
I look down at my reflection in the cup. It is me, Sisyphus. Though I still don’t understand what I get from drinking, I bring the edge of the cup to my mouth for another sip. And then another. And another.
Moments pass, and the Viewing Area becomes bare. After double-checking that no more viewers are scheduled for the day, the Director ceremoniously dims the lights in his studio. Before he departs, he picks up the teacup left on the viewing chair. It is empty.
This short story was the recipient of the Groton School Grotonian Creative Writing Prize, awarded to the “best piece of prose fiction written by an upper schooler in the past year.”