Sunday, November 22, 2015

Ursula's Night

Each New Year’s Eve, Ursula wrote a new draft of her suicide note, promising herself this would be the year. Though now, after thirty-one drafts, it had become more habit than true intention, and she even admitted to herself while writing it that it would likely be old age or other natural causes which would eventually take her, not her own hand. At this point, it was simply a way of taking stock, seeing what she had, and what she would give up. No one, so far as she knew, had seen any of the drafts, no one was aware of this yearly ritual.
     The notes had first been kept in a shoebox, but after fourteen or fifteen years, when she’d begun to suspect that she wouldn’t in fact do herself in, she transferred the notes to a three-ring binder. And part of the ritual now included re-reading old notes. That is what she was doing, a glass of pinot noir in her hand, when the knock came on her apartment door. She glanced at the clock, as if the late hour were the only odd thing about this knocking. It was nearly midnight, only thirty-three minutes left in the year. What could be so important that it couldn’t wait until morning? But as she headed from her bedroom to the door, another question occurred to her, and she wondered why this wasn’t the first thing to jump to mind: Who could it possibly be? Her apartment complex was small, only six units. And she knew that the occupants of the other five were all away. They were college students, and all of them had family and friends elsewhere, people with whom they wanted to share the holidays, or at least people with whom they were expected to share the holidays. Ursula sometimes felt terribly old around them, but at other times felt younger herself, when one or another would take her into his or her confidence about some issue, even though these almost invariably were trifles, inconsequential items of fleeting focus. Ursula always gave them careful consideration, and answered honestly and fully. It seemed they appreciated that, being taken seriously. And Ursula enjoyed it too. Wasn’t that why she hadn’t moved out of this apartment? The other apartments changed occupants yearly, while she remained. Well, that wasn’t the only reason she hadn’t moved, she admitted to herself. Where would she go? It wasn’t that she had a solid reason to stay, but that she lacked a reason to leave. There was no one desiring her company, her presence elsewhere.
     And that once again led her to wonder just who it was that was at her door. She paused at the lock, waiting to see if the knock would come again. Perhaps the person would leave, go and seek help somewhere else. Was that it? Was it someone requiring help? If so, Ursula couldn’t ignore him or her. The knock came again, but softer this time, which startled Ursula, for it seemed to indicate that the person knew she was just at the other side of the door now, and not in the bedroom. She could no longer pretend she hadn’t heard. That option was no longer open to her, though she hadn’t truly considered employing it anyway. Had she?
     Ursula looked through the peep hole, but the porch light was out again, and she couldn’t make out any features. Why was that light such trouble? She had changed it herself only the previous week, purchasing a step ladder from a hardware store to reach it. Or had it been longer? Time had ceased to have a strong hold on her, particularly now when the students were away. The place was so quiet, not just her building, but the entire neighborhood. It felt empty, devoid of movement. And the days were so dark this time of year, it was like death entered the atmosphere and made a home in the very air she breathed. It would be so easy to slip to the other side, like taking a small step sideways. Or forward, she thought. Or perhaps like not taking a step at all.
     The knocking came again, even softer this time, barely audible at all, in fact. If she hadn’t been standing just at the door, she would not have heard it. She placed her palm against the door, as if to connect with that other side, as if to know it without making a choice, the choice to open the door, to accept whatever lay beyond. For she knew now it was no person requiring help who knocked at her door. But could it be someone offering it? She then tapped on the door softly herself, accepting the connection, letting them know she was there and that she was prepared. She had been preparing herself now for thirty-one years, since her sixteenth birthday. The record of her death, kept tidy in a binder, was the record of her life. She put her lips against the door, and closed her eyes.
     It was nineteen days before her body was discovered. Her apartment door was slightly ajar, but the students didn’t pay that any particular notice when they returned from their vacations, busy as they were with their own lives, their own plans, and their rapidly approaching futures. It was the maintenance man who was replacing the dead bulb on her porch, at the request of the landlord, who had driven by the dark building one night and worried about his quiet and lonely tenant. Seeing the door was open, the maintenance man called in, hoping to toss the old bulb into the tenant’s trash before moving on to work in another building. Later he’d swear to those to whom he told the story – and they were several – that he heard Ursula respond, that she said, “Come in.” And so he did. When he first told the story, he also included the part where he heard Ursula say, “I’m in the bedroom,” but he later dropped that, as people seemed to take it in the wrong spirit, finding humor and even snickering. But there was no humor in what he found when he did enter her bedroom. It wasn’t even the corpse, already in the process of decay, that bothered him the most. It was that binder, open to the final page, a strange sort of love letter to death. And the page’s final line, clearly written in another hand, which read, “I accept.” That was the part he told no one, not even his wife, as he held her tightly to his chest as they fell asleep every night for months afterwards, unwilling to let her roll over onto her side, as was her inclination. Eventually he’d release her, and she’d roll over, and things would return to normal.

(Copyright 2015 by Michael Doherty)

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