Saying Goodbye to an Atheist
“Well that sucked,” Seth said, holding the door open as we left the clinic. “I was hoping a second opinion meant a second diagnosis.”
I took his hand, gripping it firmly. We walked the next two blocks in silence. If I had made a sound, it would have been a sound of terror.
“I need one more go around the block,” he said, making a circle with his finger around our building. “You go on in. I’ll be right back.” He paused, catching something in my eye – a sign of doubt, perhaps. “Come on - I’m not going to do anything yet.”
“Yet?” the words came out like an unexpected hiccup. “The doctor said you were fine. This makes the second doctor who said you were fine.”
Seth rotated his head slowly from neck to shoulder to back to shoulder again. The splintery sounding cracking noises made me aware of an old filling in my back tooth. My tongue began to explore the region.
“Doctors just order tests for the money. What do they know? No one knows how I feel. No one even took that into consideration.”
I touched his arm so lightly I wasn’t certain I was feeling skin. “Seth, two body scans, dozens of complete blood counts, and thousands of dollars spent should be assurance enough that you are fine.”
“But I’m not,” he said, moving his arm out from under my hand. “I’ll see you in a bit. I need some time to process.”
In the house it was easy to fall into routine. The dog had to be walked and fed; dinner made and eaten; dishes washed and dried; days and nights counted.
“Thanks,” Seth said, taking the coffee I offered as I sat next to him in the dark den. “Hope it’s not decaf.”
I didn’t smile and because it was dark he didn’t know.
“You can ask me anything,” he said. “I’m feeling brave tonight.”
“I’ve already asked you everything but you still insist on dying. So if you go through with your stupid plan, what kind of thing do I do after? I mean, you know, what do I do for an atheist?”
“First of all,” he said, putting his arm around me. “Don’t call me an atheist. The term atheist implies there is something not to believe in. I simply don’t believe. Period.”
“Okay, but I have to call everyone and let them know and then I have to find a way for people to come together, right? Beliefs or not, once you do this thing you still have to be – what? Cremated? Buried? Oh God, I’m sorry I said any of that.”
“No,” he said, stroking the back of my neck. “You’re right. We have to discuss this kind of stuff. Cremation is fine. After I’m cremated, and only after, call my parents. Have them call David and Stewart. You can call some of our friends, but that would mostly be for you. I don’t want any kind of service or anything like that.”
We sipped our coffee and listened to the sounds of the evening – the dishwasher going through a cycle, Sammy lapping water from his bowl, the couple next door shutting their door, then locking it from the inside.
“You know what,” Seth said, putting his cup on the floor next to the couch. “I know what I want. All of you should have dinner on me. I’m going to call Rose’s Diner in the morning and leave her money so it’s all taken care of. The day I’m cremated, take everyone there, okay? Tell them dinner is literally on me.”
“Seth,” I said. I’d hardly known him six months. He’d started claiming he was sick a week after I moved my things into his apartment. “I’ve never even met your parents.”
“It’s cool. They’ll like you.”
So what, I thought? The first time they meet me will be the last time they see me. “You don’t see how weird this is, Seth? I’m supposed to call them and say, ‘Hi. Here’s the deal - your son went to several doctors and they told him he was fine but he didn’t believe them so he decided to kill himself before his phantom illness could?’”
“I hope you might put it a bit more lyrically, but I really don’t care what you say. You can just say I’m dead. Suicide. The explanation is not really relevant.”
“Jesus, Seth. The explanation is everything.”
The darkness became more pronounced, like a cricket singing out from a nearby closet.
“Are you scared?”
“Fuck yes,” Seth said. “I’m scared. But I don’t want to live with pain. I don’t want to be a shell with people taking care of my every basic need.”
“Both doctors said there was nothing wrong with you, Seth. Nothing.”
“But I know. I know something is there. I feel it moving, changing, taking me over from the inside out. When I was young I walked to school with some kids on my street. Right in front of this older couple’s house was a place in the sidewalk where a small crack began to form by the grass line. We stepped over it – ‘step on a crack, break your mother’s back’ - that kind of stuff. Pretty soon it became a small hole we jumped over and then it was a place to avoid. The day to day shifts happened without our even noticing them. You know what I mean?”
I nodded, then remembered it was dark and added, “Yes.”
“I’m very grateful for what I’ve had in life. And I’m only forty-two. I won’t have to be around long enough to regret the past.”
We’d been down this well-traveled road many times in the past few months – how he would skip the aging, the regrets, the goodbyes to loved ones. I tried a detour. “Is there anything you want to do; anywhere you want to go?”
“I don’t think so,” Seth said. “You’re not going to pray for me, are you?”
“What if I do? It would be like reciting poetry to you anyway. Good energy is good energy, right?”
He sighed. “I don’t care. I really don’t. Maybe you should take off anyway. These next few weeks might get rough.”
I’d thought about it. Walking home from the doctor’s office I’d thought about packing my own things while he went to his office in the morning to clear out his desk. We had no ties. Not really. What did I owe him?
“Do you want me to go?” My back tooth began to ache.
“Maybe. Take Sammy too.”
Sammy was lying in the one point of light in the apartment. At the sound of his name, Sammy shook his head and beamed at Seth.
“That dog smiles at you,” I said.
“Now that I believe.”
Seth pulled me into his chest. He smelled like damp wood. For a moment, it seemed like we were locked together inside a hope chest.
“If I have to die, I’m glad I at least had some time with you.”
“Do you think we would have made it?” I asked, ignoring the having-to-die argument. “You know, through the long haul?”
“I doubt it. I mean, you’re a great chick, but you’re, what, twenty-six? I didn’t even know what I wanted in life until I realized I was dying. You’d have outgrown me eventually.”
“That’s not nice,” I said, pulling away from him and sitting up. “You could have lied. You could have left me with that at least.”
Sammy’s breathing was loud. His tail was wagging hard as it hit the floor. Seth must have been looking his way again.
“I did lie,” Seth said. “We would have been great together. It just hurts less if I tell myself things wouldn’t have worked out.”
I turned my head to look at his face, but it was too dark to tell which lie to believe.
Denise Tolan teaches, writes, hikes, and bikes. She has been published in Reed Magazine, Quirk Literary Journal, Magna Publications, and has a piece forthcoming in Empty Sink. Denise is currently at work on a novel, My Mexico, and has completed a short story collection, The History of Tedium.