Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Arthur tightened his grip on the three-fold perforated bundle of sheets in his shaking, sweaty hands. He stood now–not in a scantily-lit dormitory hallway in unremarkable upstate Mt. Zion University, the best historically Jewish college on the east coast if you didn’t count Yorktown, or Spilmore, or any of the others that were better than them–but at the thresholds of destiny.
Expectations of destiny, as a general rule, tend to suffer quite a bit after the puberty years.
The door across the hall grew to take up all the space in poor Arthur’s perceived universe. Arthur was aware that there were some people who hardly needed to think about things like this at all and Arthur hated those people with every fiber of his being. He regarded those people with the same untempered contempt with which man’s distant evolutionary ancestors viewed the first monkey to start shuffling about on two feet, taking all the excitable young monkey females for himself and making the rest of them look like dorks.
What you have to realize is that like most misunderstood geniuses, Arthur was a product of his time. More accurately, he was a by-product of his time. More people are born each day now than ever before in human history. This makes Arthur a prime example of what most economists call “the implicit cost of mass production.”
Arthur, who was a writer, shuffled his feet a bit and noted that the door that had become the symbolic object of his many anxieties was remarkably doory in its doorlikedness. Complacency couldn’t stand it any longer.
“Come on old boy, let’s go back inside, yeah? It was a valiant effort true enough, but we’d best not be getting ahead of ourselves here. Think about it. Do you fancy Thomas Edison just up and invented the Internet the very same day he thought of doing it? ‘Course not! He probably thought about it loads first! It’s the exact same thing with us now. We gotta go back an’ strategize.”
Arthur simply didn’t have the intellectual chops to challenge such robust reasoning. He turned around to leave.
“Excuse me.” A chilling breeze blew across the back of Arthur’s neck. It carried with it just the faintest suggestion of hushed whisperings.
“Who said that?” asked Arthur.
“I did,” said Death.
“I hope you don’t mind, but I’m looking for a Miss Amelia Johnson. The student directory says this is where she lives.”
Arthur risked a surreptitious glance at the dorm room door behind him.
“‘Fraid you’re mistaken, pal.”
“Really? Is this not Forrest Hill room 203?”
“Ah, that’s where your problem is. You see, there are two Forrest Hills. Don’t bother checking the map, the other one isn’t there. Not a lot of people know about it either so you’ll probably have to ask around for a while before you find someone that knows where it is.”
“Ohh, I see.”
“Campus layout’s a bit of a mess I’m afraid.”
“I understand. Thank you very much.” Death shuffled off dutifully back down the corridor and turned the corner at the end. “Excuse me…”
Arthur stared reflectively after the apparition for a few moments, and then turned his gaze back to the door…
…on the other side of which the weight of the world was becoming too much for just one young girl to bear. The cause of Amy’s depression had been lost quite some time ago in the overwhelming reality of it. Presumably rejection and abandonment had had a hand in it but who could say for sure? The problem, Amy figured, with being a prisoner of your own mind is that you can never know for certain what it wants—that is, apart from your unending misery. She rolled up her shirt sleeves and was in the middle of retrieving a blunt nail file when there came a reluctant knocking at her door.
“Go away, Arthur.”
“Umm, hey Amy, I just wanted to ask if you’re okay. Are you okay? Do you need anything? You’re not feeling ill, are you?”
Amy was a big believer in the right to go with dignity.
“Please go away, Arthur.”
Silence. Amy resumed rummaging through her drawers. And then,
“Umm, I think I might have locked myself out of my room.”
“Well what do you want me to do about it?!”
Arthur didn’t know. In all honesty, he hadn’t really thought that one through. He fell back for a time, but then re-rallied his troops and tried another advance.
“I wrote some poetry. I’d like to show you some of it if that’s alright.” That much was actually true. Arthur waved his sheets in front of the door helpfully.
Amy started banging her head gently against the wooden frame.
“Oh perfect. That way I know you’re still there,” and then after due pause for dramatic effect, “This first one is called ‘Writing is hard’ by Arthur Rollins–“
“Do please go away, Arthur.”
“Amy, are you hurting yourself again?”
Silence gushed in to fill the void.
“I’m sorry. I’m so so sorry I asked. I know I’m stupid and I completely understand you not wanting to have me around especially now ‘cause this is the middle of the night and this is your room and it’s creepy. But the thing is, I can’t really leave you by yourself if I think that you might–” Arthur stopped because he heard sobbing noises.
On the other side, Amy was cursing herself through the tears. Words couldn’t describe how much she hated this; how much she loathed how weak and pathetic this made her look. Nobody else would understand; not her parents, not her friends, not even her therapists. What they all couldn’t see was that the self-harm, yes it was poisonous and destructive, but it was also her way of being strong. Amy had so much hate in her, and what she hated more than anything else in the world was herself. But so long as she could still act on that hate–own it, control it, use it in a way that made it hers, that gave her some kind of agency; some kind of choice in her life, even if the only choice left was–her thoughts were interrupted by a gentle thumping on the wood.
“What are you doing?”
“Umm, I’m bumping my head against the door.”
“’Cause that way, you know that I’m still here.”
A thoughtful silence followed. And then Amy sighed.
“What’s even the point, Arthur? Of everything. Why bother?”
Arthur thought himself uniquely underqualified to be convincing anyone of the numerous joys that life had to offer, but he decided to give it the old unaccredited college try.
“Well, y’know, there’s love and beauty and life–“
” –and the pursuit of truth and happiness.” Arthur ventured.
“Those are just nouns, Arthur.”
“They’re abstract nouns. That makes them important. They’re like poetry all by themselves.”
“And, well,” Arthur thought about for a bit, “there’s this. Little talks like this, I guess. This is nice, isn’t it?”
She didn’t respond immediately but soon Arthur felt a soft thump thumping from the other side. Before long, the two of them had a pretty good two-part melody going.
Strictly speaking, the school authorities frowned upon any and all alcohol consumption in the residence halls, but that didn’t stop custodian Dan from taking a few swigs of his special brew as he took care to vacuum around the body currently passed out in front of 203. There are some things that a janitor simply isn’t paid enough to think twice about.
A hooded figure approached.
“Do you by any chance know where the other Forrest Hill building is?”
“I hate to spoil your trick-or-treating buddy,” said custodian Dan, “but I’ve been working here for over thirty years and I’ve never heard of any Forrest Hill besides this one.”
“I see.” Death thoughtfully regarded the snoring figure of our prone protagonist and then, with eyes that were technically just sockets, he considered the shimmering outline of another young life, snoozing gently right on the other side of the threshold.
“It must have been a clerical error,” Death decided, crossing out a name from his notebook.
“Yeah, I’ll bet.” Dan uncapped the top of his flask to add a little something to the brew that would make it extra special.
“You know, you really shouldn’t drink so much,” Death chided.
“You got something against drinking?’
“Not at all. I just think it’s good sportsmanship to give people a heads up. Well, see you later.”
Featured image courtesy of RA Studio.