ON MORTALITY

At 40, if you think that you might live to be 120, you’ve got to live your life over again from the beginning to the present twice to reach the end. When I think about it like this the rate at which the days are passing feels a lot less fleeting.

Is living to see 120 unrealistic? It’s hard to tell. If you have any faith in science, then there’s not much reason to think that we (the big ‘all of humanity’ we) aren’t making advances in longevity. We’re able to identify the things that can do us in, and through that develop methods of prevention. We can cure or vaccinate against most of the bugs that killed our ancestors, and in leading an ever-increasing life of secluded safety we come into fewer and fewer things that can randomly kill us outright.

I don’t believe in immortality, and when my thoughts turn to life after 100 it’s with a rational bent. I think our biology has a hard limit on its lifespan, I just believe that it’s not as short as we might think. There is, of course, the question of just how hale and hearty a person can hope to be as they achieve ancient age. There’s the hope that with a lifetime of clean diet and regular exercise, as well as taking pains to constantly engage the brain in interesting and varied activities, that we might be able to end up older than a century and still able to keep a reasonable pace of body and thought.

To me, the question of a long life is more one of efficiency and less one founded in the fear of death. I like to believe that I’d purged most of the surface terrors that awareness of mortality brings; after all, I’ve been clinically dead and recusitated a couple of times already, the first when I was very young then once more in my late teens, and in the two decades since the last experience I’ve had plenty of time to ponder my existence. I’ve always come to the same conclusion, too: that life is a gift and we need to make the most of it. Doing things that shorten it or put it at risk are just foolish, since the end is going to come regardless. There’s no sense in hastening toward that finality, not when there’s still experience to be wrought.

That’s what it’s all about, in the end. The power of locomotion and consideration that come with being a human organism are geared toward the accretion of experience. For what purpose? Do we take it with us? Who knows, but it’s the basic function of all life, and I think that it’s critical to facilitate it. And it’s hard to do when you’re dead. If life is a game (and who’s to say it’s not?) then the longer you live, and the more you learn, the more you’re winning.

It’s hard for me to say what my position on the leaderboard would be as I close in on the end of my fourth decade, but I know that it’s better than it was when I started, and if I get twice again as much time as I’ve had so far I’d like to find out just how high I can reach.

LIMITS

I got on a train bound for the sea without even thinking about it.

I suppose that’s not entirely the truth; I must have thought about it on some level. It just wasn’t one of the conscious ones.

As was my wont, and my privilege, I secured a ticket on the private passenger car. The car was empty, for it was the middle of a weekday afternoon, and all the respectable people were either working or studying, while the retired ones were napping. I enjoyed the scenery passing by the window for some time, longer than usual. Normally I just flopped into the deep bucket seat, pushed it into full recline, and passed out. Those days I was operating on only a handful of hours of sleep per night, with irritatingly short naps interspersed throughout the day, so I’d fallen into the habit of crashing whenever I found myself on a train. That afternoon, though, I was in a ponderous mood. After all, there I was, taking a train for no real reason.

I managed to stay conscious long enough to see the stark concrete edifices of the city dissolve into lower and sparser suburban structures, and then the green gaps that came with the actual, authentic countryside. I slept, and dreamed of being free.

The car attendant woke me some time later, a polite shaking of the shoulder and I blinked myself awake. The quality of the air had changed, and I instantly recognized the salt tang that suffused it. I realized that it had been a long time since I’d known that smell, perhaps years, and I understood in an instant how many of the children who’d been raised in the metropolis went their whole young lives without seeing any genuine nature. Not the animals caged in the zoos, or the carefully planned and manicured public gardens, but honest old-growth forest sprouting from the sides of ancient mountains, or the vast sea lapping on some stretch of rocky shore.

I disembarked and could see the thin blue strip of the ocean from the edge of the platform. There were no fancy security gates at that terminal station, just an old dude asleep in an open kiosk with a worn wicker basket for tickets. I dropped mine in and pushed my way through a tarnished turnstile.

It took longer to reach the sea than I’d thought, but I’d always been like that when it came to orienteering. Still, the walk had been pleasant and quiet, and the rising sound of the waves beating on the shore had provided the perfect backdrop to the day. When I reached the end of the road and the pavement turned into sand, and I was at last staring out over the vastness of the Pacific I knew that I’d made a grave mistake in giving so many of my days to the city, and my heart broke a little. Yet something had reminded me of this, and pushed me with invisible but authoritative hands until I stood where I’d needed to stand.

I left Japan a year later. Looking back now, I think that visit to the beach had been the last straw. The concrete had been killing me.

LOVER

“You can let them love you, take you in heated and passionate moments, frame you in all possible manners inside their own minds, but never, never, let them carry you away.” She stood and stretched, and she was a cat, her long muscles shivering in the moonlight. I didn’t know who she was then; even now I have only the faintest clue.


I’d stumbled to her place through the midnight park, staggering drunk from a relaxing evening at a hostess club where I’d spent more time and money than any foreigner had any right to. I’d meant to go home. I always meant to go home, just sometimes her place was closer. It all boiled down to convenience.

“Hello?” I knew she’d been sleeping, but she sounded as fresh as she would at noon.

“It’s me,” I slurred.

“Of course it is. Are you coming?”

“Yes. I’m in the park. I’ll be there soon.”

“Be safe.” And she’d hung up and I’d realized how warm and quiet Ueno was. Homeless slept in their tents under the yellow glare of streetlamps, and the occasional mosquito tried for my alcohol-laden corpuscules. I quickened my pace because that was her effect on me, always instilling the sensation of urgency. How many times had I run to her, either out of desperation or a deep and selfish desire for her comforts. And how she’d always so willingly provided them, without question. To be sure, there were questions, at least there was always that big one, bubbling just under the surface. She never asked it, though. Not then, anyway. Years later, after so much heartbreaking agony and distance, she’d finally force it into the conversation into a place where I couldn’t deflect it, with expert grace. Like a boxer slipping and counterpunching that one narrow gap where the guard was the weakest, a liver shot that hobbled my emotions and made me question everything.

But that wouldn’t be for years, and there I was, still able to watch her supple flesh glide in the moonlight, skin slick with the sweat from our lovemaking, and radiating all kinds of satisfaction. I’d wanted to bottle up those moments and keep them forever and, in a way, I did. There’s all still in there, lodged in my brain to be recalled at the most inopportune moments, to fill me with guilt and shame for the waste of opportunity and divestiture of my heart.


“You are wise beyond your years,” I said.

“What does that mean?” she asked.

I thought I’d known.