Oct/Nov 2018 Nonfiction

In the name of not repeating

by Joe Bardin

Public domain image adapted by Tom Dooley

Having a story to tell and a way to tell it can be contradictory conditions: the having being based on the originality of experience, and the telling on the commonality of it. Friends encourage me forward, but no matter how I parse it, I can't reasonably expect to be understood. Our era of identity inclusion doesn't help because the category makers have not accounted for mine, and why would they? There aren't enough of us yet to count. Or maybe the desire to dismiss is so strong since what I am in most people's minds simply does not exist. Or is too terrifyingly optimistic to contemplate. Like the world not being flat, but with a massive personal dividend attached, an undreamed of inheritance accompanying such newfound roundedness.

Still, I concede the story demands a telling of some sort. My stopping point has been how. Conventional wisdom advises don't explain. It confidently counsels, show don't tell. But these are etiquettes for flirting with the familiar, proprieties for engaging with the poetry of the everyday. But what about the poetry of the never, or forever? What about the new you know will repel as well as attract? What are the protocols there? Surely, some explanation is called for, some narrative lifeline to traverse the abyss of that unknown. But what cord will hold?

It's been nearly 30 years, so one thing I clearly know is how not to tell this story: 1) Look around for peers writing something similar. 2) Think about your family and how they will take it. 3) Try to discern an audience that will identify and buy. 4) Ask advice how others would tell your story. 5) Tell it only tangentially, in veiled ways, and then consider it a failure when it doesn't come off. 6) Repeat.

So in the name of not repeating, where to start? Here's an accessible enough reference. I once heard the poet Sol Williams say that 23 is an age of sudden redirection. After college and a couple more years, you realize your idea of yourself isn't working, which triggers an abrupt rerouting like when you've missed your turn on a GPS. In Williams's case it was the move from acting to writing. But the shear span of my own redirect belies bridging. Twenty-three was the year I first heard the words physical and immortality combined.

I was not to my knowledge searching for anything; I just lacked everything. I was a young man, a free agent, but also an old man, a world-weary Gen Xer, who had probably read too much Yeats and Heidegger, cynical of surfaces but disbelieving in depths, stuck in between like an insect in amber. Probably I had some measure of depression. Possibly my whole family did. In any case, the lack had grown so familiar, I didn't know it or see it anymore.

I'd first met up with this lack in high school when an expansive sophomore year of sports stardom and social breakthroughs was followed by two empty years of anxious tedium. Actually, that's not true. As early as elementary school I was writing myself lists of what to do when I felt empty, trying during the full times to fortify myself against the absence that would come over me. But I don't remember the lists ever working, or even looking at them when I was down, as if I knew there was nothing I could do about it.

In high school the lack came to stay, like a secret sharer I couldn't shake. I blamed myself for being less than happy and never told a soul. If I had been more aware or braver, I might have tried to graduate early, even immediately. The repetition of school wore on me, and sank me into a restless laziness. I was known to be a bright student, and teachers probably gave me grades, because I did next to nothing but still got into Vassar.

I hoped college would spark some kind of animating fire in me, or more accurately, would reveal some life that glowed more brightly and was hotter to the touch than the one I knew.

The students were undoubtedly more sophisticated than the ones I'd gone to high school with. And the teachers were far superior. I learned a lot and matured a little, but at some level that mattered most, nothing happened, like my life was an engine that cranked at times but would never quite turn over and start. This sense that something needed to happen, but that wasn't happening, oppressed me, and seemed to burden experience with some quota of meaning it couldn't bear, making me, I'm sure, not much fun to be around.

After graduation, I had similar hopes for New York City, as I'd had for college; that somewhere in the great multiplicity and anonymity of the City I'd be changed, like some pilgrim from the Midwest who finds home in the Big City, along with artistic acclaim. Never mind that I came from Washington DC, hardly the prairie. Instead, a silent inwardness that had stalked me through college now seemed to overtake me. Shyness conspired with time and intellect to form a desperate aloofness, so that even when I tried to emerge, an inner editor constantly seemed to talk me out of it.

One winter Sunday morning in 1990, riding the subway from the Upper West side to Brooklyn Heights, as the train rocked through the East River tunnel, two guys obviously hopped up on crack or coke sat down on either side of me. One of them produced a box cutter out of the pocket of his sweatpants. They asked me meaningless questions and laughed back and forth between themselves, the blade of the box cutter floating inches from my face. I could smell their sour breath. A couple sitting toward the front of the car took no notice.

When the guys finally asked me for my wallet, I was relieved and offered it up quickly. But just then the train emerged from the tunnel, the doors opened in Brooklyn, and laughing, the two guys jumped off, not even taking the wallet.

I stayed on the train one more stop, crossed the platform, and trained right back to my apartment. As shock receded, terror took hold. I found myself praying as I hadn't done in years, if ever. I acted exactly like those faithless characters in the Bible who only turn to God in extreme need. Like the classic sinner, I even went so far as to promise devotion in exchange for safe passage through this world. I will be a better Jew. As the adrenaline flooding my body subsided, I already knew I would fulfill none of it.

Most troubling was I had no real reason for being on that train. If I'd gotten my face sliced open, it would have been for no purpose whatsoever. I was going to see friends, but just to hang out. As if I hadn't hung out enough after four years of liberal arts college and a rudderless year in New York City.

My family had moved to Jerusalem when I was two, returning when I was six. Since then, Israel remained an alternative reality, somewhat paling the present one with the temptation that the true home lay elsewhere. Now, the sense of being in the wrong place at the wrong time in New York pervaded me, so I went to Israel again.

I chose Tel Aviv over Jerusalem because I knew I somehow needed to lighten up, and Jerusalem, weighted with all its religion and history, was hardly the place for that. In Tel Aviv, Hebrew, which I'd learned as an infant, came rushing back, opening a slit in the chrysalis of silence I'd stitched myself up in. Because I had to practice, Hebrew gave me license to exercise my muscles of small talk. The tyrant of meaning and originality I'd enthroned to justify my isolation was held at bay, and I was able to practice just talking. Israelis encouraged this, being forward by nature. And perhaps as a coping mechanism for their chaotic existence, they are rather ironically endowed with the confidence that, in any given situation, they know better. So I had to speak up for myself or be steamrolled.

I got a job bartending for a catering company. Israelis were such novice drinkers, I knew any drink they ordered simply by virtue of having gone to college. That's where I met Q, who fundamentally altered the course of my life and then later abandoned it completely, as did all of my earliest mentors in immortality, ditching the great experiment to disappear back into the control group of mortality I could never rejoin.

All the girls working for the catering company were attractive, but Q stood out. Israelis lived in a hurry, rushing to get life in before, perhaps, it ended abruptly in some arbitrary bomb blast or burst of gunfire. So while there was plenty of flirting and game playing, young people weren't jockeying just for pleasure, power, or popularity like their American counterparts, but for marriage and family. Q seemed separate from that agenda. With striking blue eyes and full lips, she wore her half Moroccan, half Lebanese beauty naturally, almost without interest. She had a generous warmth and calm presence that drew me, as if to find out what was at the center of her centeredness. Soon enough I did.

During event setup, while we were polishing silver and glassware, I tried talking with her. She accepted my attention graciously, not flirting back but not dismissing, either, a response that seemed not quite feminine, almost androgynous. I pushed my luck and asked her out for a drink. She turned me down, but with more feeling than girls who'd gone to bed with me. When I asked her again, she invited me to an event on physical immortality.

People can be remarkably quick to argue for their own end—on religious grounds or what they consider sound science or socioeconomics (subjects they never think about except to steadfastly insist on the necessity and appropriateness of their own death sentence)—but I had no such ready objection. I considered immortality possible, as I considered all things possible; I just wasn't particularly interested.

I accepted my culture's acceptance of death without a thought. Trying to write poetry at the time, I sensed art's deep complicity with mortality. Literature is fundamentally about our lack of immortality, our struggle with limitation and incompleteness, and our ingeniously good and evil attempts to transcend it, with varying degrees of success. But never in real, literal terms. From Gilgamesh to Frankenstein to A Farewell to Arms, we are forever trying and forever failing, always leaving open the door to the sequel in this endless series of efforts that fall short.

As Dylan Thomas famously exhorted us: "Rage, rage against the dying of the light./ Though wise men at their end know dark is right."

Why is "dark," or death, at the end right? The pat answer is the one provided by Jorge Luis Borges in his story "The Immortals," in which Borges describes a hellish existence of endless repetition and tedium devoid of all meaning. The removal of death marks the removal of our humanity; that we have a limit on our time is what gives it value and meaning. Narratives on immortality overwhelmingly align to this posture, never mind that it's an argument for poverty; should we all earn less money so we can appreciate every penny more? But consciously or unconsciously, I was still very much in this camp.

I liked the girl a lot. So why didn't I just agree to go with her? Maybe I thought I had time to work on her and get her to do it "my way," no matter how unsatisfactory that way had been for me so far. But that was an American conception of time, not an Israeli one; a few days later, the Gulf War hit, and we didn't see each other for the duration.

The first night of the war, the sirens woke me out of sleep, the rising and falling wail like an assault on the nervous system. Addled by the alarm, I pulled on my gas mask I'd picked up from Civil Defense. But residents had been instructed to prepare a room sealed with plastic sheeting in which to wait out attacks from missiles that might be armed with chemical or germ agents. This I hadn't done.

I heard a crash and felt the concussion of an explosion. The radio reported the obvious, the state of Israel is under attack... I heard choppers circling overhead. The utter and potentially lethal absurdity of the moment stunned me. If I'd lost my life, it would have been through sheer carelessness. First the train to Brooklyn, and now this; I seemed to be living in a kind of sleep of carelessness I couldn't wake myself from.

I invited myself to stay with family friends who lived in a northern suburb. Yehuda was a trader up all hours of the night working the markets in New York, London, and Tokyo. When the air raid sirens woke the rest of us (his wife Hanna, his daughter Gilat, and me), he sometimes just trotted from his desk to the shelter and seemed happy to have the company.

One night after an attack, too wired to sleep, Yehuda took me out to try to find where a Scud had hit. The news never revealed precise locations for fear of assisting the enemy in calibrating his next shot. We sleuthed around nighttime Tel Aviv in Yehuda's Citroen, following his hunches from one neighborhood of deserted streets to another. We didn't find any missile hits, but Yehuda shifted into tour guide mode. Here was the downtown neighborhood near Allenby Street where he grew up, within range of Arab rifles from Jaffa, at that time in Egyptian hands. Here was a building on the corner of Dizengoff and King George, which he and some partners were considering purchasing. (They would put in a mini-market downstairs—would I be interested in managing it?) Here was the café on Shenken Street where S.Y. Agnon and his literary circle used to meet.

It eventually became clear the scuds were only conventionally armed, poorly deployed, and more people would be hurt in domestic disputes from being cooped up inside together than by Iraqi armament. Conscious of not overstaying my welcome, I moved around among acquaintances. In Jerusalem, for once the safer of the two cities because of its Arab population, where I stayed with my uncle and aunt, people sometimes ignored the sirens entirely. One night out in a bar, which had set up a sealed area, the siren went off. Some of the patrons dutifully moved to it and some, including me, did not. We looked at one another through the plastic sheeting, waiting for the all-clear to sound. It was a distinctly Jerusalem moment; Jews in close quarters practicing acutely varying degrees of observance.

When the war ended, I was anxious to see Q. I'd even tried to call her, but to no answer. Afterward, she told me she'd spent the war in a village in the Galilee, in the house of an ex-boyfriend, playing the piano. She'd been classically trained by a Russian tyrant of a teacher as a child and on track for a career. But made to compete against a cousin in a manner she considered cruel, she'd quit, and the cousin indeed became a pianist. Occasionally, I'd hear her play, usually Chopin's Etudes, with exquisite feeling.

The party circuit kicked into high gear, celebrating not victory but normality's return, which for Tel Aviv was the real triumph. Perhaps like all such cosmopolitan experiments, Tel Aviv is a bubble, a city sufficiently distracted by commerce and culture and cappuccino to continue existing in denial of the troubled ground it stands on.

I tried to get closer to Q, but she made it contingent on going to these events of hers. The icebreaker came when Q's group of immortalists planned a trip to some spa in the North, beside Roman ruins, and she invited me. Somehow the element of sightseeing made it okay for me and my principles to go along. We met the group in front of the National Theater, Habima, and took a tour bus to the spa.

Immortality has an image problem; we don't know what it looks like. Take the Highlander television franchise, in which immortals battle one another through the centuries, beheading rivals, raping wives, in an endless quest for revenge and, occasionally, some measure of meaning. In other words, they act exactly like mortals, they just do it for much longer periods of time. Vampires are also hopelessly confused with their mortal counterparts. Who are the real bloodsuckers who live off the life energy of others? Everyone knows vampires in real life and they are all too mortal.

I didn't anticipate elongated canines, but I did expect a group of physical specimens. Instead, these immortals were all ages, shapes, and sizes, seemingly very happy in their own skin, like nudists but with their clothes on. The group attracted its share of massage therapists, naturopaths, chiropractors and the like. But it also included a judge, a ballet dancer, a prominent journalist, real estate agents, entrepreneurs, and the heiress to the largest dairy in the country who would become a billionaire.

They were exceedingly friendly, hugging and complimenting everyone on everything in a way that wasn't quite real to me. Their attitude was that in mortality we are all preparing to leave and to be left, which conditions us to withhold our affection from one another, to armor against inevitable abandonment. This leaves us all on our own, and lacking the full passion and love we need to give and receive in order to thrive. They saw mortality as a self-reinforcing cycle of emotional depravation; the certainty of death stops us from loving as deeply as we can, which prevents us from being nourished and supported as profoundly as we need to be to outlive it. And they were busting through those barriers of feeling with gusto. I listened with skepticism but found myself drawn to their energy like a plant toward sunlight.

They were understandably motivated to eat well and take care of their bodies and eagerly discussed different modalities from yoga to shiatsu. But they also expressed the profoundly revolutionary notion that the life of dying we'd all lived since the beginning of human awareness was wrong, and that what was right was to question it and refuse it. Health basically bored me, but this paradigmatic uprising stirred me in a way I couldn't as easily dismiss.

I had never thought about physical immortality, never worried about my death or about losing others to it. In my early teens, my grandmother's death and funeral had been perplexingly anti-climactic. She had been old all my life, comfortably bed-ridden for the most part. What she loved most was reading. When her eyesight failed, she transitioned to books on tape, borrowed from the local library, their green plastic containers stacked on a bedside table in bulk quantities of Trollope, Herodotus, P.G. Wodehouse and on and on.

When she came to visit, ensconced in a bedroom where she would remain for the duration, I would sit and listen to her muse on literature, philosophy, and classics, all of it passing well over my head. Occasionally, I would nod knowingly and feel grown up. Once, she had me push the door closed, and she led us in an exercise in ESP. We took turns wordlessly broadcasting and receiving visual images back and forth, though I never saw much more than spots in front of my eyes.

At the funeral, in a prosaically flat and all too new cemetery somewhere in suburban Maryland, I felt angry death had taken Miriam and turned her into a thing in a casket. But there was no one to be angry with. My mother, Miriam's daughter, uncomfortable with showing her emotion in any case, wore the somber, distracted expression less practiced Jews wear when they are challenged to get the recipe of rituals right. Some say, with considerable cultural pride, that this is the genius of it all: the ritual takes your mind off things.

The strongest feeling shared by the circle of relatives and friends attending was a supportive sense of understanding, the essence of which was the unspoken agreement that there was nothing to be angry about, nothing to resist. In effect, there was nothing wrong. Why had she undergone several medical procedures just recently if it didn't matter? Why did we all care about the outcomes of these procedures, until they failed? Only to frame the failure now as right and proper and natural and acceptable.

Some of the same people who attended Miriam's funeral attended a funeral reception a few years later when I was a sophomore in college. A family friend, American, had been killed in military service in Israel, shot in a Hezbollah ambush on the Lebanese border. The mother, pale with grief, greeted guests to her house, receiving the inadequate condolences of those awed by her loss. He wasn't just young, in his mid-20s. He was a sweetheart. A talent. A seeker. A person of depth and promise. He left behind poems and watercolors.

He was six years older than I, almost a generation in kid-years. But in one of my very earliest memories, I am playing army men with him on the cool tile of a Jerusalem apartment. We were apparently ageless at that age.

This death altered people's politics and radicalized their metaphysics. Bare-headed Jews became mystics. They had out of body experiences. They knew with certainty they would see him again. On the other side. This death was too terrible to take issue with. Instead, the issue was how to absolve death of its finality, of its careless, cruel, endless actuality. My reaction was a romantic one of wanting to take up his place in the Israeli Army. I went so far as doing a military course for Jews not yet citizens called Marva the following summer, but my legs broke out in such horrible rashes from sweating in uniform that I couldn't bring myself to enlist and have to live with that for two years.

Q lived in a tiny, meticulously clean studio apartment downtown off of King George Street. There she showed me a book by her three heroes in immortality, whom she referred to by their first names: Chuck, Bernie and Jim. To my postmodern, Gen X ennui it made perfect sense: the next great enlightenment wouldn't come from some guru with a super-multi-syllabic Indian name, or from the traditional texts of the past, or from some Harvard PhD. That had all been done. The next big idea would come from three guys in Arizona named Chuck, Bernie and Jim. Still, I had no intention of buying in to any of it.

Tel Aviv drew all manner of experts in alternative modalities from positive thinking to rebirthing and Est, now known as Landmark, as people there struggled to take charge of their lives under the relentless pressure of the past and threat of the future. When the three immortals from Arizona came, Q would not hear of me missing it, so I went. The immortals group met in the auditorium of an old age home, of all places, in a suburb of Tel Aviv, and the place was packed with hundreds of people. Bernie, it turned out, was a woman, blond, petite, with piercing eyes. Jim and Chuck were both tall, well-groomed and dressed in suits and ties. The three spoke with forceful passion, mostly about how we were supposed to live forever and that death was a corrupt compromise with limitation, and the crowd roared for them.

Q was enraptured, but I did not engage. Their rah-rah English and dressed-for-success style were "too American" for my expat attitude at the time. Disengagement was my default setting anyway; I needed a reason not to and didn't find one. Also, I didn't yet know the new always comes by way of someone else, and saw something false in taking on her worldview.

I defended my right to not feel, to be numb, like some family heirloom, which in fact it was. Q, true to her word, said she couldn't do it. I stuck to my principles, such as they were, and we went our own ways.

The next night, bartending for a wedding reception on a whitewashed roof in Jaffa, the surrounding neighborhood of Ottoman housetops bristling with TV antennas, I ran a fever and had to lie down. Sick with separation, I remember relief; that I couldn't just walk away from Q and whatever it was she was doing with her life; that I had some kind of bodily conscience that could override my stuckheadedness.

With Q, I started living forever on a limited basis. Among other things, this involved intense engagement with one's colon. In my family, no one spoke about bowel movements or constipation or even gas. My father sometimes farted at the table Friday night, the one meal we all ate together, and we sat by in awkward silence. Digestion and all bodily functions were ignored as if we lived in the Victorian novels my mother loved. But these Tel Aviv immortals couldn't stop talking about their bodily functions; just asking how are you was an invitation to hear all the latest.

Q was convinced, perhaps correctly, that having been raised in a traditional Mizrahi home, on old fashioned Moroccan cooking, she had a lot of wrong to make right. This was in part because she had sensitivities in her digestion and her thyroid she needed to address. But also because embracing unlimited lifespans through nutrition, positive thinking, yoga, emotional clearing, and whatever else they could come up with brought with it an awakening to how "wrongly" they'd been doing it to that point. This created a kind of revolutionary fervor to deconstruct old lifestyles, expose the nutritional, emotional, and psychological toxicities that lay within, and then try everything that could be done to fix it all.

Q ate vegetarian and was big on cleanses and fasts. She took supplements of all sorts, from algae to herbs to some kind of edible mud. She sometimes went days without eating anything it seemed but lemon juice and olive oil. I dabbled, somewhat half-heartedly, being addicted to ice cream and unwilling to commit to Q's Spartan approach.

Still, I took something potent enough along the way to cause me to break out in a fierce rash on my stomach. Q in her boundless optimism saw it as a good thing; I was cleansing out toxins. She told our immortal friends about it, and they listened with interest, pulling up my shirt to look.

Someone gave me a salve to put on the rash; even though this salve fired up the rash twice as red and angry, the process was still generally viewed as efficacious; I was cleansing more. Somehow this all inevitably led to me having an enema, which, considering my inexperience and Q's tiny apartment, was an act far more intimate and vulnerable than sex. Lying with my legs in her mini-bathroom and the rest of me sprawled over her kitchenette floor, holding for five minutes some mildly detoxing formula of warm water Echinacea and garlic, I knew I was changing, and in ways I could have never imaged.

My hearing changed, too. I started to notice how much death people talked in daily conversation. Love you to death. Sick to death. Bored to death. Scared to death. Over my dead body. Now I can die happy. Only sure thing is death and taxes. Till death do us part. And on and on.

The servers at the catering, in their early 20s, were already anxious about lost youth, approaching decrepitude, running out of time. As a novitiate of immortality, I was eager to intervene. I tried to suggest that if they would talk differently about themselves, they might start to feel differently. Plus, I wouldn't have to hear it. But they had no interest in changing their conversation; they had nothing else to talk about. They wanted to chatter on and on about time passing, because that was their way of passing time.

Living forever also apparently meant trying all sorts of new things for no other reason than that I didn't want to. No sooner did I express to Q a distaste for something than she was building the case for why I should do that very thing, and that my resistance to it was the expression of an old life I was leaving behind anyway.

The problem was, often, she was right. I was too quick to dislike, disapprove, and dispose of all manner of things I knew nothing about, encompassing a vast and ever growing territory of avoidance. Why not in fact sing in public, or eat some oregano oil for my immune system, or go to a nightclub at one in the morning? But this kind of thinking also led to me wearing crotch hugging tights to a party, and to auditioning for a modeling agency and getting signed, possibly for my fair "American" features, though I was much too introverted to ever land a gig.

In the name of living forever, I did stupid things and I did meaningful things. But at some point, the logic of mortality simply collapsed inside me. The idea that one could live a good and satisfying life within the confines of, let's say, 80 years, while knowing you're heading, with each passing moment, towards your own oblivion, became an absurdity. It wasn't so much a question of whether immortality was possible as whether mortality was tenable. And it was not.

I saw for the first time the roots of my own alienations. It wasn't the fear of death that had held me in check, it was some innate revulsion at the futility of the repetition of the life of dying. Birth, bar-mitzvah, marriage, career, retirement, death—it had all been done before ad infinitum. And no amount of innovation between the lines of birth and death could change that. In fact, how creative could you really get with your own story when you already knew the ending? This was the real hell described by Borges—not living the unknown of immortality, but being stuck in the predictably deadly morass of mortality. Was it even possible to live forever? It became clear to me it was slow suicide not to try.

This a checkmate position. But readers will be understandably tempted to keep moving the pieces around anyway. After all, mortality is the endeavor of extending a losing game as long as possible, all the while knowing failure is already the endpoint. Which is what makes this storytelling venture so suspect. Can I give you enough to go on to... what? See as I see? Or at least... see what I see? Is that even possible without seeing as I see?

During my long writing dormancy, I once asked Aubrey De Gray, the Cambridge scientist with the wizard beard, now the face of the movement to cure aging, how to tell this story. As he was gulping down a beer, he advised to tell it as a love story. Maybe he's right.

Q and I moved into an apartment together just off of Bugrashov Street. We rented it from an apprehensive older Persian couple who were highly suspicious of our work in catering but charmed enough by our love—and my American-ness, I think—to relent. The apartment was clean and light, and just a couple blocks from the beach at Frishman Street, where we would walk on our nights off. The sea relaxed me, and I could sense that my life, riddled by loneliness and a near dangerous degree of dreaming, was starting to fill in.

Growing up, conversation centered on newspaper headlines and sometimes books. Q asking me how I felt often drew a blank, not because I had nothing to say, but because I consciously and unconsciously dismissed it as either too serious, too trivial, too obvious, too obscure, or some combination thereof. One night, lying on our mattress on the floor in the dark, the Tel Aviv traffic wooshing by outside, she asked me again, and this time I answered her. I told her I felt like my DNA was waking up, not just in my brain, but in my cells. She held me, and we cried together. It was the most tender moment I'd ever experienced.

Was such an awakening really happening? Could even just the idea of immortality be altering my inner intelligence? Or was I just in love? It hardly mattered. For the first time in forever, I felt a spark, and the life engine inside me turned over, and this time it started.


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