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THE MORTAL ON THE CROSSWALK

/ Sanjana Dhamankar

Nonfiction — 7 min reading time


I did not think it would be so euphoric, realizing that I was going to die one day.

And I certainly did not hope to have that realization crushed under the weight of three grocery bags.

See, I’ve seen the movies; I’ve read the books. I know for a fact you’re not supposed to have these realizations while crossing the damn street.

Give me an empty freeway at three in the morning; give me a fast car with an open sunroof and wind that smells of rain and pollution; give me delicious cold and a throat scraped by woo-hooing; give me tears in my eyes and freedom as incandescent as the streetlights winking in the periphery of my vision.

Give me all that, and I’ll show you the kind of triumphant invincibility only humans are able to feel. Give me all that, and I’ll scream about how much I’m afraid to die, and that’s what makes me feel alive. Give me all that, and I’ll make it so that my voice carries on the wind and haunts all the others who ever drive down this freeway.

Because that’s how it happens in the books.

Recklessness. Volume. Euphoria.

Give me a rendezvous by a lake at dawn; give me the familiar calluses on the hands of a lover and the unabating warmth of bodies huddled close together; give me delicate birdsong and the scent of wildflowers; give me a smile on my face and tenderness as fragile as the spiderwebs in the undergrowth.

Give me all that, and I’ll show you a tsunami of ardour, the kind only the very young or the very old are capable of. Give me all that, and I’ll whisper about how much it breaks my heart that I won’t live this moment ever again. Give me all that, and I’ll leave behind my name and the cavernous nature of my sentimentality for the next generation of lovers to idolize.

Because that’s how it happens in the movies.

Secrecy. Companionship. Euphoria.

I really thought it would be like that for me too. But alas.

It was just me, with my gallon of milk, my eggs and my clementines, and my ill-advised party-pack of chocolate ice cream. And the crosswalk, of course. The crosswalk that I’d been waiting forever to cross, the wet chill seeping into my skin. I was tired; I’d only had three hours of sleep the night before, and a pile of incomplete assignments awaited me at home.

Still, there was a gorgeous sunset to distract me.

A gorgeous 7:30 PM Southern California sunset, spread across the sky like watercolours spilled on expensive silk.

So many different hues, and yet I could only think of a few words to name them.

Yellow. Pink. Orange.

God, that was sad. I wondered why I didn’t know more names for colours. I thought every colour should be like orange, named after whatever cluster of molecules the light refracted off of to make it.

Candlelight yellow and coral pink and orange orange to make a sunset. Granite black and ink blue to make the halting cars. Chalk white on charcoal grey to make the sidewalk. Fire-truck red for an LED stop sign, switching in a blink to crumpled-leaf green.

“Regents Road. Walk sign is on. Walk sign is on.”

Finally. I started to cross the road then, my mind still stuck on the intricacies of colour. I resolved to learn more about this, right after I finished my research into the various kinds of British wildflowers. But then, that would mean putting off my dive into Kafka’s works. And what about my unfinished fantasy saga? The world wasn’t going to build itself.

Then again, the homework wasn’t going to do itself either; the dinner wasn’t going to cook itself; the apartment wasn’t going to clean itself.

Eh. I guess I’d just quench my thirst for the aesthetic after I’d done all of the worldly responsibility stuff.

But…when would I be done with all of that? And what if I became interested in something else along the way? Should I make a list? A ranking?

Should I schedule time to indulge in the maniacal discovery of the intricacies of the universe every day? Should I, in my final year of university? How much time should I set aside? Three thousand six hundred seconds seems like plenty, but one hour does not. How do I decide?

When do I get stuck in an endless loop of YouTube videos? When do I stare blankly at the ceiling? When do I dance around in my pyjamas? When do I sleep in?

I froze in my tracks. The walk sign was no longer blinking; a red hand flashed before me and counted down the seconds I had left to cross the road. And yet I froze in my tracks.

Because I realized that I had a laughably finite amount of time in which to do it all.

Time that was finite because I was going to die.

Not because an oncoming car got sick of me standing there like an insect fossilized in amber. Not because I was suddenly struck by lightning out of a clear sky. Not because a meteor suddenly skirted too close to the Earth, got pulled in by its gravity and wiped out life as we knew it.

No, I wasn’t going to die because of an accident or because of some disaster along cosmic fault lines.

No, I was going to die because I am mortal.

I was going to die because I am woven from chemicals and electricity with built-in defects. Because I am a complex organic compound, and I will decompose like everything else. Because I have a shelf-life, a best-before date, a do-not-consume-if-seal-is-broken label.

And I hadn’t noticed it for twenty-one years.

I was on a ticking clock. I had only so long to learn the nine languages I wanted to; I had only so long to revel in cramped bookstores and sprawling museums; I had only so long to laugh at unintelligible jokes distorted by a good time, to be frightened of the expectant dark in my house before I flicked the lights on, to win and lose arguments about the best Jell-O flavour.

And this would be on top of having only so long to get a degree, and a job, and a marriage and all the babies that society wanted me to have.

And here I was, wasting my precious seconds dithering in the middle of a crosswalk.

I began to run, trying to cover the remaining distance before the countdown whittled down to zero.

And by the time I’d reached the other side, the universe had already expanded outwards a little more; had created that much more for me to lose myself in. And it exasperated me, that I would die without even knowing a fraction of what was out there to know.

But the music in my earphones was louder on this side of the street; I could hear every pluck of the harp and every melded harmony behind the lyrics. And I felt certain then—very foolishly, I’ll admit—that if I saw a shard of white light now, I’d be able to pick out every colour in the rainbow. My skin chased sensation on this side of the street; demanded to feel everything, even if it was unpleasant. The prickle from the wind, the sting of heavy bags carried for too long, the receding warmth of the champagne sunlight, all were priceless now. Every breath was deliberate; a gift and a measure of lost time all at once.

And given all that, I found that I had the strength to skip with grocery bags knocking into my shins every two seconds, because if I didn’t do that then I was sure that I would make like a firework and explode into a million sparkles. Given all that, I found that I had nothing at all to say, because epiphanies were not particles, but waves. Given all that, I found that I didn’t care if I was venerated for all eternity or erased from history, because no one except me needed to understand the gravity of what it meant to be ‘here’.

So, yeah. That’s how it happened for me, in reality.

Stillness. Solitude. Euphoria.

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