They hold hands. He allows himself to stroke her fingers with his. Their palms sweat and in between their touching fingers a thin film of moisture is massaged back and forth, exchanged like a gift of love. They do not mind the dampness. Sometimes he will pull her hand up to his face and press a kiss on it. He will instinctively close his eyes, and later regret it. When he is home and she has left him, he will hope he didn’t make the concession to earnestness. He always does this. Same mistake, same regret. He would hope he had kept his eyes open and seen her reaction. Would she her eyes, or just smile? Or something else? He is tall and thin and, from an angle, does not look exceptionally bad. She is almost his height, with short fluffy hair she wraps in a scarf and has allowed him to see only once. She thinks he is always beautiful. He thinks he has not loved anyone more. There is nothing spectacular about them except that, by the end of the week, he will have broken his promise.
And there is nothing spectacular about death, either. Death is not special. There is nothing momentous about death, nothing important and certainly nothing interesting. But you might think so. You might even think it’s heartbreaking. But that is you, and I am simply incapable of exhibiting similar reactions. And I must not. You do not ask a pig to fly, and you do not ask me to care about death. If I cared about death—and I repeat, I cannot—I would not be able to do my job.
But even if a death has nothing spectacular about it, I feel as though sometimes I can sense the portents, the earliest inchoate hints, of importance. The possibility frightens me. Things change, things grow, so why not me? I realised this early on, this possibility that I might slowly grow feelings—or the ability to feel—towards my work. It might be nothing but suspicion. But what if it isn’t? Such a prospect, such a disability, cannot be more damaging. So I have resolved never to allow myself the chance to find out. Speed was the answer. If I do my work quickly, the chance of attachment is eliminated, and I maintain my stoicism. And that is why death is quick. A person is here, alive, and then—no then. It must always be fast. The times I falter, the times death is a protracted affair, are when I have made the mistake of dragging it longer than I can afford.
It has been four days since he postulated his theory. The metro station is noisy. The large corridors are filled with chatter and the patter of shoes on floor. In the rush hour passengers scurry around intricately, in webs, and from a distance they look like ants carrying backpacks and dragging bags on wheels. There are no empty benches so they sit on a railing. Once it was meant to keep trolleys from hitting the walls, and now it does nothing but rust and occasionally provide seating to the late and the tired.
“How much do you love me?”
“It is big.”
“Like the universe.”
He is outraged. “But it’s the universe! It is the biggest thing in the unive—” He considers this. He laughs to himself. She joins him. The metro bursts into the stations. “The next one?” he suggests, and she delights in the offer. This way they spend more time together.What is another ten minutes?
It arrives to him like they do, these passionate remarks; fast like wit, or genuine like the effortless products of true love. He thinks this one is brilliant. He has always been conscious of his wordplay, his flattery, and took pride in its relative originality. “But the universe expands,” he says. “It’s always expanding.” Deftly he lets this resonate. He takes his time. The punchline must not be marred by inadequate delivery. She purses her lips and tilts her head to the side, as if asking, “So?” He decides he has bridled long enough. Softly, like it were a secret, he tells her. “That means every day I love you more.” He considers this. “About a few planets more every day.”
She is impressed. He knows this because she tells him she loves him like she is just discovering it for the first time, like it were as fresh as the day they first knew. “Promise me,” she says. He promises her. “Every day,” he adds. She knows he is honest because no lie sounds like that.
The little tube is empty and he does not know it. He has been lucky enough so far and has never run out in need. He lives alone. His apartment is on the seventh floor of a building that miraculously has a lift. It is nearly midnight. He wakes up feeling a weight in his throat, a large presence in his chest, cold and rigid, like dead air filling his lungs. He presses the tube and crushes the handle. It lets out a small breeze that amounts to nothing. He staggers to the door and into the lift. On the ceiling of the cabin there is a fluorescent tube around which a fly circles. By the time the lift reaches the ground floor he cannot step outside. His heavy head falls his side and he lies splayed, legs apart. His neck is striped with bright red scratch marks that did not help his asphyxiation. Tomorrow his classmates will be shocked. They will mourn for about half an hour and their faces will fall dejected, and they will try to remember what they knew about him and come up with almost nothing. Then they will forget he ever existed. She will not.
One body spread helplessly on the floor. One promise broken out of inability. He is still warm. I kneel down by his side. For a moment I can feel something else, something I should not feel. I can sense the earliest hint of hope, of courageous dreams. And something more—something like love, or maybe it is—I hurry. I will not find out. I arrest the remains that concern me and leave behind those that do not. I do my work. I do it quickly.