“Your life is your life. You have the right to own it, all of it, until your very last day.” What if you knew “The Date?” What would you do? A work of speculative fiction where one’s time is nearly up…
by: Sandra Ebejer
I slice through the filet’s purplish-red center. It’s undercooked, but I don’t send it back. There’s no time for such trivialities. I spear the juicy meat with my fork and drench it in bitter steak sauce, ignoring its chewiness. When I look up, Tom is gazing at me from across the table. He is astonishingly handsome; on more than one occasion I’ve caught the eyes of men and women alike following him as he crosses a room. His good looks would become tedious if he wasn’t also down-to-earth, intelligent, and witty.
That’s it. I have to end this.
I put my fork down, wipe the corners of my mouth with a napkin, and take a deep breath. Without making eye contact, I tell him, “I can’t see you anymore. I’m sorry.”
He chuckles. “Is it the steak?” he asks. “We can get you something else, you know. You don’t have to break up with me.”
I don’t laugh. I will myself to look at him and he sees I’m not smiling.
“You’re serious,” he says. “Why? Did I do something wrong?”
“No, it’s not you. Really. I just, I…it’s complicated.”
I don’t know how much to tell him. I didn’t expect us to reach this point. It’s always been my hard and fast rule to end things after three dates. It’s been an easy rule to adhere to; until now, none of the guys I’ve gone out with have kept me engaged beyond the first or second outing. But Tom and I have been seeing each other for two months. I’ve agonized for weeks over if and when and how to tell him, but allowed myself each time to wait just one more day, and now here we are.
He looks at me with genuine sadness on his face. I’ve stunned him.
“Wow,” he says. “This is not how I expected tonight to go. I thought things were going well. Is it someone else?”
“No! Honestly, it’s not you, it’s me,” I say, the line sounding even more cliché spoken aloud.
He slumps in his chair, staring at the table. I consider leaving, even offering to pay, to end things on a friendly note. But I want to come clean. I want to part with dignity.
With as much courage as I can muster, I say, “It’s my Date. My Date is coming up.”
He looks at me, not understanding. “What date? Like, you’re going on a date?”
“No,” I reply. “Date. With a capital D.”
He continues to look at me, confused. Then his eyes widen. He gets it. He says, in a hushed tone, “You mean, the Date?”
“How do you know? I thought they stopped doing it?”
“I was born in the window, when they still did it. And my mom, she looked. She glanced at the paperwork when she was checking out of the hospital with me and it was right there, in black and white.”
“Wow,” he says. “And she told you? How long have you known?”
“My whole life,” I reply. “At least as far back as I can remember.”
Tom’s still for a moment, taking in this information. After a lengthy pause, he asks, “How long do you have?”
I cringe. This is specifically what I wanted to avoid. I stare at my wine glass, the residue of Merlot staining its bowl. I don’t look up when I say, “Two days.”
“Two days?” he replies, dumbfounded. “Shit.”
We sit in silence for a moment. Then he says, “So, what are we doing tomorrow?”
I smile in spite of myself. “That’s nice,” I say. “But I need to end this now.”
“So, you want to spend the next two days alone?”
“Well,” I reply. “There’s someone I need to see, and I have some errands to run—”
“Errands? Are you kidding me? You’re telling me you can’t see me tomorrow because you have to run errands?”
No, I think. I’m telling you I can’t see you tomorrow because I’m terrified.
The air between us is tense. The food remains untouched. Perhaps I should have done this over the phone. Or just stopped returning his calls. Ghosting, I think, is what it’s called nowadays.
“Please don’t let this be our last conversation,” he says. “I like you. A lot. And I really want to spend more time with you before…” He doesn’t finish the sentence.
I pick up my fork and take a bite of steak. I’m not hungry but chewing gives me an excuse not to talk. We sit in silence for the remainder of our meal, politely declining the waiter’s offer of dessert. Tom pays, as he always does, and we walk outside to find a taxicab has just dropped off a fare. Without saying a word, he holds the cab door open and looks at me. I hesitate, but I realize that being alone right now isn’t what I want. I climb in.
That night we lie in bed, Tom’s arm around me, hugging me close. The back of my head rests on his chest, and I stare at the ceiling. I know he’s not asleep. When he sleeps, he snores, and right now all I can hear is the pattering of light rain against the window.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner,” I whisper.
I feel his chest rise and fall as he sighs. “That’s ok,” he replies. “I’m not sure how I would have taken it if you’d told me sooner.” After a beat, he asks, “Do you know how? I mean, how it’ll…happen?”
“No. Not how or what time. Just the date.”
He starts to ask another question, but I’m tired and I don’t want to talk anymore. I interrupt him with a kiss and whisper, “Good night.”
When I wake, I’m alone. I assume Tom has fled after realizing I was right all along to end things. But when I pad out of the bedroom, I hear the sizzle of a frying pan and the off-key humming of an old Beatles tune. I enter the kitchen to find him, looking straight out of GQ in a tight T-shirt and designer jeans, standing at the stove making eggs. He smiles, but I can see in his eyes he’s sad.
“Good morning,” he says, kissing me on the cheek.
I barely recognize my usually barren kitchen table. Muffins, jams, coffee, and orange juice surround two place settings, complete with woven placemats and cloth napkins. A bouquet of yellow daisies sits in a vase in the center of the table.
“Where did all this come from?” I ask.
“I couldn’t sleep,” he replies, “so I got up early and went out to get some things. That OK?”
I don’t know how to feel. I can’t tell if he’s tending to me because he enjoys it or because he pities me. Would he be here on any other Saturday morning, making breakfast for the two of us? He’s never done it before. Or does he feel guilty because he knows he’ll get to eat again tomorrow and I might not? I sit at the table and nibble on a croissant while trying not to think about it.
He brings over a plate of bacon, eggs, and fruit, and as much as I don’t want the special treatment, I have to admit it’s delicious. I eat it all and drink down a tall glass of orange juice. When I look at him, he’s staring at me. I suddenly understand what it feels like to be an animal in the zoo.
“So,” he says. “What are the plans for today? You mentioned something about errands?”
“Well, not errands, exactly. I have to visit someone, and there’s an exhibit at The Met I’d like to check out. Beyond that I really don’t know.”
He’s incredulous. “The Met? You could go there anytime. I don’t get it. Why are you not traveling the world? Throwing a massive party? Going on an enormous shopping spree? If I knew how much time I had left—”
“Well, you don’t,” I snap. I’m reminded why I had the three-date rule.
I pick up my plates and throw them in the sink, rinsing off the bits of food so they won’t be too hard to wash later. Then it hits me — I may not be here to wash them later. I feel dizzy. The reality of the day feels like a weight on my chest. Before I realize it’s happening, I’m shaking, and my knees begin to buckle.
“Hey, I’m sorry,” he says. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”
He tries to put his arms around me, but I shrug them off.
“It’s fine,” I say. “Look, everyone always says that shit. They say, ‘If I knew I only had so much time left, I’d’ and then they fill in the blank with traveling and parties, but life isn’t really like that. I can’t travel because I need to pay my bills and therefore have to maintain a job. And I don’t have money for some huge shopping trip, which is fine because I don’t like shopping all that much anyway. And I don’t have friends or family for some huge party. I’ve never allowed myself to get close enough to keep up a relationship of any kind, specifically because I don’t want anyone interrogating me about my end-of-life plans. If you want to figure out if you have a Date, go right ahead, and you can spend your remaining days in new clothes at a huge party in some exotic location. But do not scoff at my decisions. I don’t need my final hours judged by someone I’ve known for a matter of weeks.”
I’m yelling. It’s more than I’ve said to anyone at one time in a long while. I burst into tears. Tom comes to me, hugs me to his chest, and whispers, “What time does The Met open?”
The day is beatific. Last night’s rain has given way to a bright, cloudless sky and temperatures that warm but don’t overheat. We spend hours at the museum, studying each work as if preparing for a final exam. When we leave, my head aches but my soul is fed. I want to go home to curl up and read a book or put on an old movie, but there’s more to do before the day is over.
Tom and I take the train to Queens. It’s been a month since I’ve seen her. I’d rather not go, but I must. I don’t know how much she understands, but I feel it would crush her if I didn’t visit one last time. When we arrive, I leave Tom outside. As kind as he is, he isn’t welcome into this private space.
I sign in at the front desk and head to the common room, where she lives her days in a wheelchair. She’s wearing the flowered housecoat I bought, and her long, thin hair is in a fragile bun. I wonder if the staff knows somehow, if they’ve done her up special just for me.
I take a seat next to her and use my sleeve to wipe away the tiny trickle of drool that has taken up residence on her chin. “Hi, Ma,” I say.
She stares ahead. I study her for any sign of awareness.
“How are you?” I ask. “You look nice.” Each visit is a one-sided conversation where I fill the silence with inane chatter and small talk about the weather. “It’s a beautiful day outside. They say it might rain later on, though.”
I sit for a moment and listen to the sound of a game show blaring from a television in the next room. I envision a group of nursing home denizens in various stages of consciousness staring slack-jawed at the screen. I put the thought out of my head and focus on the purpose of today’s visit.
“Well, it’s here,” I say to her. “My Date. It’s tomorrow.”
I search her face for a flicker of recognition but find nothing.
“I’m scared,” I continue. “I don’t know how it will happen. I keep thinking maybe it won’t happen at all, you know? Like maybe what you saw was wrong? I just went for a physical and I’m in good health. I suppose I could stay in my apartment all day and that way I won’t get hit by a bus. Maybe I should buy one of those giant balls of bubble wrap and then just roll myself up in it so nothing can hurt me. Of course, then I’d probably suffocate myself, regardless of the date.” I snicker and look at her, but all she does is stare.
I know it’s out of her control, but her silence infuriates me. This one fucking date has ruled my entire life, and I wouldn’t have even known about if it weren’t for her. The blood test was for research purposes only, the results not intended for public consumption. But when she signed us out of the hospital the nurse turned away from the counter, giving her an opportunity to glance down at the paperwork and see the results.
I asked her once why she told me. I was seven. I remember we were sitting at the kitchen table, eating a dinner of hot dogs and potato chips. I’d asked two of my classmates about their Dates and they had no idea what I was talking about. When I tried to explain the Date’s importance, they told me I was weird and shunned me. I was already new to the school, having moved to the area only a month before, and that conversation ended any opportunity I had to fit in.
“Why did you tell me about the Date?” I’d asked. “The kids at school don’t know anything about it. Are you lying?”
“No. I never lie to you,” she replied, firmly. “They don’t know because the government doesn’t want them to know.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Fear of what?”
My mother closed her eyes and took a deep breath. My childish questions were beginning to annoy her.
“Of the truth. If you know your Date you have power, you have control over your life, until the very end of your life. The government doesn’t want us to have that kind of control.”
“But I don’t understand. How does a simple blood test help us have control?” I asked.
“This ‘simple test,’ as you call it, tells you how long you’ll live, down to the day,” she replied. “When it became public that hospitals were giving the test to newborns, the government panicked. There was this irrational fear that people wouldn’t be able to handle the information. They thought we would, I don’t know, run wild in the streets and lose all semblance of civility and democracies would tumble.” My mother chuckled at the images in her head. “So, they continued giving the test, for a short while, but kept the results hidden from the very people whose blood they were stealing.”
She looked at me, no longer laughing. “I looked. I wanted to know. Your life is your life. You have the right to own it, all of it, until your very last day.”
I have no other memories of the conversation, or of any others about the Date. We moved six months later, and again eight months after that. My mother had a difficult time with authority, and we relocated each time she was fired from another job. I learned over time to pack light, keep to myself, and under no circumstances mention the Date to anyone.
I look at her now. She blinks, but her eyes are glazed, her body perfectly still. I choke back tears. I want her back — the real her, not this wheelchair-bound facsimile. She wasn’t a great mother. She was brusque and rarely gave hugs and in response to my fears would say things like, “Suck it up, buttercup.” But she was my sole relative, my constant companion, my rock for so long.
“I should go,” I say, choking back tears. I kiss her cheek and once again wipe her chin. I inhale her aroma — a faint combination of sweat, urine, and baby powder — and whisper, “Bye, Ma. I love you.”
I stand and leave quickly without looking back.
I’m quiet on the ride home. Tom can tell by the look on my face that he shouldn’t ask who I saw, and I don’t offer up the information. He’s respectful, though at times I catch him watching me and it brings back the feeling of being a caged animal. I do my best to ignore him.
Back at my apartment we drink wine and eat pizza and try to mimic an ordinary Saturday night. We curl up on the sofa and Tom talks about his childhood. He pulls up his Facebook page to show me a photo of himself as a gangly, acne-covered, twelve-year-old, and tells me about the time he and his brother accidentally set a backyard birdhouse on fire.
“So we kept throwing water on it until the fire was out. When my parents got home from work, there was this charred, black stick standing out of the ground where the birdhouse used to be. My mother asked me about it and I put on a look of shock and said, ‘Wow, Mom, I have no idea. I didn’t see anything!’”
“Did she know?” I ask.
“Of course!” he says, laughing. “I couldn’t have looked more guilty. But she never punished me. I think she realized the shame was probably enough punishment. I didn’t go into the backyard for weeks after that.”
I laugh along, but I’m jealous of his conventional upbringing. Mine was a childhood of worry, following a temperamental mother from place to place with a dark cloud of impending death hovering over me at every turn.
Tom turns the conversation back to me. “So, how did you deal with knowing your Date for all these years?” he asks. “I can’t imagine carrying that around as a child.”
“I don’t know. It was just part of my life. It always felt far away, which helped. I mean, when you’re a kid, thirty-three feels like an eternity. When I got older, I tried to ignore it. My mother started forgetting things about ten years ago and as she got worse I focused my energy on helping her, and that allowed me to disregard my own situation. But I suppose I can’t really avoid it any longer.”
Tom puts his arm around me and snuggles in close. He brushes his lips over my hair and wraps his left hand in mine. I look at the clock. It’s past 11, a new day is on the horizon. The day.
I untangle our fingers and stand abruptly. “I need you to go.”
“Oh,” he says, taken aback. “But why? Don’t you think you shouldn’t be alone?”
“No,” I reply. “That’s exactly what I need.”
That look of sorrow on his face again, but this time I can’t let it sway me. He stands and holds his hands out as if to plead his case. “Are you sure? I really don’t want to leave. Let me stay the night. Let me be with you tomorrow.”
“No. I need to do this on my own.”
I hold his gaze, unwavering. This Date and I have been paired for a long time. If things are going to end, we need to end them together, just the two of us.
“You’re wonderful,” I say. “Today has been better than I could have ever asked. But I need to be by myself now. Please. I promise I’ll call you on Monday if…if I’m still here.”
His eyes water but he gives a slight nod. He picks up his jacket and leans in for a quick kiss. “Goodbye, Jenny,” he says, not making eye contact. He leaves, and I am finally alone.
I hear the clock tick. Each second feels like a death sentence. I have an overwhelming urge to stay busy. My heart is racing and anxiety courses through my veins. I pace my apartment, straighten knick-knacks, move books from one shelf to another in the guise of reorganizing. I wash the dishes in the sink and wipe crumbs off the table, trying not to think about Tom and his thoughtful gestures. I log into my laptop to check my work email and find nothing but an all-staff meeting request for Tuesday. I click “accept,” thinking perhaps my mother was wrong. Perhaps tomorrow is just another Sunday. Perhaps this was all a sick joke.
The clock ticks again, and I look: 12:47 a.m. It’s the day. My Date. I realize there’s nothing else for me to do but wait. I turn off the lights and sit on the sofa, remembering a line from a Van Dyke poem I read in college. “Death is as unique as the individual experiencing it.” That line comes to me often, many times without warning. I reflect on it now. I wonder how unique my death will be.
I sit on the sofa and watch the shadow of a tree branch dance across my living room carpet. I am exhausted, but I dare not sleep. My heart pounds in my chest and I take a deep breath in an attempt to calm it down.
Does mother remember me?
This day has been with me for so long.
I can’t believe it’s here.
I don’t want to die.
I don’t want to die.
I don’t want…
Sandra Ebejer lives in upstate New York with her husband, son, and two cats who haven’t figured out how to get along. Her work is forthcoming or has appeared in The Boston Globe, Brevity, Drunk Monkeys, 50-Word Stories, FLOOD Magazine, The Girlfriend from AARP, Folks, Motherfigure, and Greatist, among others. Read more of her work at www.sandraebejer.com or follow her on Twitter @sebejer.