On my eighteenth birthday I received a letter from the government. It came in a plain white envelope with a black stamp in the corner. Along the bottom, in faded red ink, was the urgent message, “TIME SENSITIVE INFORMATION: OPEN IMMEDIATELY.” I signed for the letter. Receiving it was mandatory.
I wished there was somebody else in the house with me, but my siblings had already moved out and my parents were shopping for furniture to remodel my room when I left for college. The silence in the house was absolute.
I took out my phone: “It’s here,” I texted Ally.
Ally: “OMG! On my way! Did you open it?”
Me: “Not yet. Door’s unlocked.”
I walked upstairs to my bedroom slowly looking at the envelope. It felt heavy in my hands, but that was probably only in my head. I placed the letter on my desk and sat in front of it. My dim, dark reflection caught in my computer monitor watched me as I tried to ignore the envelope sitting in front of me. I wanted Ally with me, but I could only resist the temptation for a few minutes before I opened it.
I put my finger under the triangular flap and slid it across the envelope. The sound of ripping paper filled my room. Inside was a single piece of paper expertly folded into thirds. The corners aligned perfectly. I wondered if there was one person at the Bureau that spent all day folding these letters into perfect thirds. It was, after all, a very important piece of paper that deserved that level of attention to detail, because printed on this piece of paper was the exact date of my death–my expiration date.
As part of the Third Law of Humanitarianism every eighteen year old received this letter from the government. The date printed on the paper was one hundred percent accurate.
My heart pounded in my chest. “Relax,” I said to myself, “there isn’t anything to worry about.” I was in decent physical condition. There wasn’t any trace of cancer, high blood pressure, or diabetes in my family history. My grandfather had died from a heart attack, but he was eighty-three. That couldn’t be blamed on faulty equipment. Of my immediate family my father had the shortest expected lifespan at seventy-two years, while my sister had the longest at one hundred and three. Everything would be fine.
I unfolded the letter:
Dear Matthias Williams,
In accordance with the Third Act of Humanitarianism we are sending this letter to inform you of your expiration date:
May 24, 2034
The Expiration Date Bureau
I glanced up at the calendar: May 22, 2034.
Everything went dark. For a long while I stared looking at the date written on the letter. My mind, failing to rationalize the information with my reality and my plans for the future. I was left in a deaf daze. My eyes stuck to the letter, not perceiving anything. My mind no longer working.
It was only when my bedroom door burst open that I snapped out of the haze. It was Ally.
She was smiling at me, trying to catch her breath. Her makeup was done hastily, and her hair was pulled back in a sloppy ponytail. She was wearing a coat that was too warm, and she had on two different types of shoes. “Sorry,” She said noticing me look at her shoes, “I sort of rushed to get over here.” She looked at me and her broad smiled vanished.
There was concern in her voice, “Are you crying?”
Then there was fear, “Why are you crying?”
I reached up and touched my face. There were tears covering my cheeks. I wiped them off.
“Is that the letter?” she asked. Her voice cracked in her throat.
I was gripping it tightly in my left hand, the perfect tri-fold lost in a sea of creases. “Oh, yeah,” I said. I stuffed it into my pocket.
“What did it say? Aren’t you going to let me read it?” She asked.
“I-“ I started, but I couldn’t finish. When I looked at her I felt a pang of guilt and a wave of longing.
Ally was not my girlfriend. She was a girl that was a friend. The fact that I was in love with her had no bearing on our relationship. At least, none that I wanted.
We met one day in the library. She asked if she could borrow my math book. We became friends because we had the same taste in music and video games. She liked most of the same movies as me, and we had a similar sense of humor – though she refused to acknowledge the comic genius of Carrot Top.
Despite that, when I asked her out on a proper date. She turned me down, and told me the story of her Uncle Robinson.
Uncle Robinson was not her real uncle. He was a family friend that helped take care of Ally when she was growing up. He was the one that introduced her to comedians like Louis C.K. and Mitch Hedberg. He tutored her in math and babysat her when her parents went out for date night. He left an unmistakable hand print on her heart. He defined her outlook on many facets of life including Expiration Dates.
Uncle Robinson and his wife didn’t believe in reading the expiration date letters. They wanted to live everyday with the promise of tomorrow. Having a hard deadline in your future was “like driving down the freeway in a Bugatti, but you see a wall looming in front of you. You wouldn’t want to feel that engine roar under you. You wouldn’t want to have your heart pump, you’d be too scared of the end. I don’t want to see the end.” He told Ally. The cruel twist of irony occurred when his wife died in a car accident. “Had they known,” Ally told me later, “she could’ve said goodbye.”
Ally saw less of Uncle Robinson after that. He retreated into his own life and focused on raising his only son, Zed. They visited on holidays and birthdays, but around Zed’s eighteenth birthday Uncle Robinson changed. He stopped visiting. He stopped eating. He started drinking and had violent mood swings. “Something’s eating away at him.” She heard her parents say in hushed conversations late at night. Unhinged. Uncle Robinson wouldn’t tell anyone what was bothering him, but on Zed’s eighteenth birthday everyone found out.
Zed was hit by a bus. They found his Expiration Date letter clutched in his hand. That evening Ally found Uncle Robinson hanging from the ceiling, his lifeless body swinging in the dark. On the desk was a letter. Uncle Robinson’s Expiration Date letter. The date was circled over and over again until parts of the paper had worn through under the weight of the ink, the frenzy of the pen. “Zed’s 18th,” was written below it.
“He must’ve known.” Ally said, “He was smart. Or, at least he assumed the worse. What was the one thing he would take his life for? After Zed there was nothing for him. He must’ve thought of it like that.” She wiped away a few tears with her sweater sleeve. “That’s when I decided that I wouldn’t make any big life decisions until I know. I mean, what if I fell in love with you, and then I find out I was going to die when I turned twenty? What then? Would I just have to break up with you? Or would you have to waste your time waiting for me to die? I don’t think I can handle that. Do you understand? I just can’t. Not until I’m sure.”
I nodded. She smiled and kissed me on the cheek.
After that I waited. Her letter would come at the beginning of August. No time at all. That’s what I used to think. Now there was a giant Doomsday Clock at the forefront of my mind counting down until May 24th–thirty-six hours.
Ally sat down on my bed, and for a moment my life struck a familiar harmony. It was as if I had woken up from a bad dream. Ally was sitting on my bed, and I was sitting near my computer. We had spent hours in these exact positions browsing the internet. We looked at interesting websites, listened to music, occasionally studied, but mostly we watched cat videos. They were our favorite.
There was divine hilarity about a cat’s natural, cool confidence subverted by impotence and failure. Whether it be a cat squirming into a glass vase that appeared too small, a kitten hunting a red dot from a laser pointer, or a compilation video of failed cat costumes, we always filled the room with laughter. We wasted hours upon hours of our lives watching cat videos.
The thought sent a discordant note through the moment of harmony. Things were not normal. The letter in my pocket shattered the delicate illusion, and left only the dismal reality that I would die in two days. In the stillness that followed all the lost hours washed over me and left behind a question, “Did I waste my life?”
“What is it?” Ally asked. She grabbed the tip of her hair and began chewing it, “how bad is it?” She asked.
I looked out the window and tried to tell her the date on the paper, but I couldn’t. Without looking I handed her the letter.
“No,” she said a moment later, “oh, no, no, no.” She said over and over again. The paper crinkled in her hands and she cried. Each tear landed on the paper with a small plop that smudged the ink like her smeared mascara.
The broken sobs and soft shivers fractured my heart. I got up and sat on the bed next to her. I put my arm over her shoulder, and she turned to me, burying her head in my chest. She wrapped me tightly in her arms as her body shook with each gasping sob. “Why’d it have to be you of all people?” She said through breaks in her ragged breaths. Tears welled up in my eyes, but I stopped myself from crying by focusing on making her feel better. “It’s not fair.” She said over and over again.
“It’s okay,” I whispered softly into her ear trying to comfort her, but the words rang false to me. Why the hell am I comforting her? A voice in the back of my mind said as the Doomsday clock ticked down turning my sympathy into irritation and anger. I’m the one that’s going to die soon. And now I’m wasting my final hours as she soaks my shirt with her selfish tears.
I shook off the voice until it became silent, but it was still there festering under the surface like an infection behind a scab.
I hugged her tighter. She shivered in my arms, and her breath eased and slowed to normal.
After a few more minutes – twelve minutes according to the Doomsday clock – she pushed me away and sat up. Her face was a mess of smeared makeup. “Excuse me,” she said, and walked to the bathroom to clean herself up.
I sat alone in my bedroom listening to the sound of running water and her periodic, loud, slow exhales. During that time the picture of the Doomsday Clock got brighter in my mind and the memory of wasted time watching cat videos carved deep into my heart. “Did I waste my life?” That simple question transformed to reality while I waited for Ally: “I wasted my life.”
In two days I would be gone, and there would be nothing left of me. I would fade out of reality like the last remnants of a dream disappearing behind waking eyes. My own dreams, the ones I crafted late at night looking up into the darkness with hands placed behind the back of my head broke apart and shattered. I would never play the drums in a band. I would never live in China for a year. I would never create art that spoke to people on an ethereal level. I would never have a family of my own. Time would slip past me and leave me behind in the realm of yesterday.
The door opened. Ally came back in and in the quiet of my mind a primal thought to capture a hint of immortality surged forth. Procreation.
Maybe if I could have a child. Maybe if Ally would let me – I loved her she knew that. The thought crystallized in my mind despite my own shame and embarrassment. It was a terrible, horrible, selfish thought, but so was the idea that I would be dead in two days.
Ally sniffled and gave a weak smile. I got up from my bed and placed my hand on her back. She gave me a hug, and squeezed harder than ever before. I relaxed a little breathing in the scent of flowers on her hair. The smell comforted me.
She let go, sat on the bed, and looked out the window. I closed the door.
Suddenly I was alone in my bedroom with a woman I had been in love with for the past two years. Her hair was a mess, her nose was pink, and her face was raw – scrubbed clean of makeup. She never looked more beautiful to me, and the desire to be with her built within me and found the weakest outlet. If I could sleep with her and she got pregnant with my child then I could leave my mark on the world. The doomsday clock ticked down and I decided what I wanted out of the next thirty five hours and twenty three minutes.
I wanted to develop a meticulous plan to seduce Ally. I wanted to woo her, and date her. I wanted to explain how important she was to me, and how she was (literally) the love of my life. But I didn’t do any of that. Instead-
There’s a video on the Internet where a balloon is sitting in the middle of a room. After a few seconds, a Persian cat stalks into frame. It walks with the confidence of a seasoned hunter stalking its prey. It inches closer and closer to the vulnerable balloon. The cat freezes hidden partially behind a throw pillow on the ground. It lowers itself on its haunches and waits, tail flicking back and forth wildly. A second passes. Then another, and another. Then it lunges. Claws extended the cat flies through the air at the unsuspecting inflated piece of rubber. The balloon pops, and the cat, surprised at this counter attack, rockets in the opposite direction tumbling through the air as if it had jumped on a land mine. The following seconds played out in a similar fashion.
I took a few steps towards Ally, she was looking out the window, so I looked at my reflection in the mirror on my door. I ran my hands through my hair and rolled up my sleeves trying to flex my biceps a few times. I turned back around and leaned on my desk with one hand, the other hand in my pocket. I tried to look aloof. I went over what I wanted to say, and then cleared my throat.
Ally turned to look at me.
“Will you have sex with me?” I blurted out all at once.
Ally jumped off of my bed and scrambled to the far corner of my bedroom. If I hadn’t been blocking the door, I was sure she would’ve been halfway home in that instant. Instead she crossed her arms over her chest and looked down at her feet.
“What?” She asked, her voice high and frantic, “What did you just ask me? Did you really just ask me to have sex with you? After what you just showed me? How could you even think of something like that?”
“No!” I said, “I mean, no that’s not exactly what I meant. I-” I took a step towards her and she flinched. Blood rushed to my head and the room started spinning. “I didn’t mean to ask you that way. I mean I’m going to die, and it’s not even- I mean, I just want-” I stammered struggling to find the words, “You know how I feel about you.” I said
“Yeah,” she said, “and this is what I was worried about. Exactly this.”
“What?” I said. I closed my eyes willing the room to stop spinning. “What do you mean? You always said you were worried you would be the one to die early.”
“Of course I’m worried about that,” she said dropping her arms, “but, come on, once I’m dead it’s not like I’ll be able to feel too much remorse.” She gave a half-hearted chuckle, but the smile died on her lips. “What would be worse was for someone else to die, someone like you, someone that I loved.” She slapped her hand to her mouth.
“You love me?” I asked. A wave of hopeful elation washed over me, and dulled the grim reality of my Expiration Date.
She lowered her hand slowly and bit her lip. “I-I’m sorry,” she said.
“Why are you sorry? You just said you loved me, right?”
She ignored my question again, “Look, I just don’t think I can. I mean, I don’t think I can do that.”
“I don’t care about that anymore,” I said. “You just said you loved me, didn’t you? Is that how you really feel?” I wanted her to say yes more than anything. More than sex or a child. More than another hundred years of life, in that moment I wanted her to admit that she loved me.
But she didn’t.
“I can’t. Can’t we just stay the same? I want to remember you as my best friend. I mean, you get it, right?”
The temporary wave of elation receded and left behind the Doomsday clock, brighter than ever, with that little selfish angry voice. Now it was getting louder. I didn’t say anything for fear of letting it escape.
“We can still hang out, right?” she asked hopefully. “I heard about this playlist of really funny cat videos from Japan. There’s this one where the cat walks on his hind legs and the guy added these speech bubbles, like ‘herp, derp, herp, look I’m a hooman.'”
“Are you serious?” I asked. “Are you fucking serious right now?” I took a step towards her, shoving my desk chair to the side. It tipped and slammed against the hardwood floor making Ally jump. “You want me to waste the last days of my life watching cat videos with you? You know that’s how I wasted my whole goddamn life?” I turned around towards the monitor. Her faded reflection looked back at me. She seemed confused, shocked. Part of me wanted to stop, and turn around to apologize, but it was too late. I reached out and slammed the monitor hard against the desk. It shattered. Stray shards of glass hit the floor. “My whole fucking life!” I yelled, “watching cat videos with you. And for what! For some cock tease that keeps pushing me away.” I turned around, facing her again. Tears were in her eyes and she was pale now, “I loved you! And you never even gave me the time of day, because you were too fucking paranoid. Now? Now I’ll never have that, and all you can think of is fucking cat videos? Get the fuck out of my room Ally. Get the fuck out of what little life I have left.”
When my tirade ended there was emptiness. A rift opened up between Ally and me. She wasn’t crying. The tears I had seen were gone. That was the worst part. She didn’t seem angry either. She didn’t yell back. That was the second worst part. Her mouth was slightly open and her face was pale, it was like she had seen a ghost- like I had just died in front of her. To her, I ceased to exist. She didn’t say anything. She just got up, walked past me, and left.
As the door closed, I heard her let out a single heart wrenching sob. The door latched shut and all I could hear were the muffled sounds of her running down the stairs and out the front door.
Something broke inside me. It was like standing on the beach letting the ocean’s wave wash over my feet. The waves receded and pulled the sand out from under my feet making me sink. I kept sinking. I fell below the waves and the sadness swept over me. I had enough time to crawl on my bed before my legs gave out and the spasms of tears burst forth. I cried silently. I cried loudly. I wrapped myself in blankets and punched a hole in the wall. I cried until my lungs hurt and my eyes stung and my pillow was coated in tears. And then I cried for a little longer.
I tossed my pillow to the ground and flopped sideways onto the bed where Ally had sat. I took a breath and could faintly detect her aroma. It lingered like a ghost on my bed. I took a deep breath and brought the blanket closer to my face trying to get lost in that fading memory. I never knew how much something as small as her scent meant to me. With each breath it filled me and eventually granted me the peace of sleep.
I woke up when my parents got home. Time slipped by in unfocused scenes. I showed them the letter. My mom cried. My dad made himself a drink then he made me one too. My mom called out and ordered too many buffalo wings – my favorite food. We called my siblings and told them the news.
The next day the house was filled with my family for my last day.
Before I got the letter I never quite understood why it was a good thing, but that day made everything clear. It was a chance to say goodbye. Not for me, but for those I was leaving behind.
There were tears and hugs and a veil of sadness shadowed the day, but there was also happiness and laughter. One final hurrah. A living wake, of sorts.
But these things only rippled the surface. Deep down there was the Doomsday clock and there was Ally. Late in the evening on May 23rd I hugged my family members one by one and went up to my room. “I just need to be alone for a little while.” That was my last lie to them.
I snuck out.
I ran to Ally’s house. The seconds ticked away like my solitary foot falls on the asphalt in the cold night. The Doomsday clock ticking down second by second like Death was following close behind me. There was no guarantee when I would die tomorrow, so I had to make it to Ally’s house before midnight. I ran harder than ever, ignoring the stitch in my side.
I made it to her house fifteen minutes before midnight.
I climbed up to the balcony outside of her room. I always felt like Romeo when I did that. The accuracy of that comparison made me shudder. I knocked on the window. She looked at me from her desk. I thought she smiled, but it was probably only a trick of the light. The next moment she turned her back to me and focused on her computer. I knocked again, but this time she completely ignored me.
I sat with my back against the balcony railing and stared into her bedroom – her little world that I would never be a part of again. Would death be like that? Would I be looking down at her as she moved through the world like she moved through her bedroom? Would time swim and ripple past me and would she age like the world outside the the time traveler in The Time Machine? Would I see, in an instant, her loves, her losses, her triumphs, and her tragedies? Would time pass by, and eventually free her from her mortal coils so that we could be together again in a timeless infinity? Would she even remember me?
But somehow thinking those things made me feel better. They made the Doomsday clock disappear, and allowed time to pass by untracked. She left her bedroom and I waited. When she came back she was ready for bed. She was wearing a sweatshirt I had loaned her one cold winter evening. She swore she lost it. I smiled thinking back at that day, and how she pressed her body close to mine for warmth. When I looked up she was standing in front of the balcony door looking at me.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean any of those things. I didn’t mean to break our trust. I didn’t mean to push you away.”
She didn’t say anything for a long time. She stared at me and pursed her lips. Then she closed her eyes and took a deep breath through her nose. “I think everyone is allotted one emotional breakdown per lifetime. You just used yours pretty late in the game, relatively speaking.”
“It is. Come in.”
I smiled, got up, and went into her bedroom.
She sat on her bed. I sat on the ground with my back propped against her bed. “Anything you want to talk about?” She asked.
“I think I’m all talked out. You mentioned something about cat videos?”
“You mentioned something about wasting your life?”
“I was wrong.”
“I don’t think you were.”
“I was,” I said and climbed up onto the bed next to her. I lowered my arm onto her shoulder and she leaned into me. She took a deep breath and relaxed into my arms.
I stroked her arm through the sweatshirt and kissed the top of her head.
“I love you,” I said.
Without pause or hesitation she said, “I love you too.”
My heart swelled and I realized that was all I needed. She wiped her eyes with the cuff of the sweatshirt and took a slow deep breath through the sleeve.
“Matt, this is going to sound stupid, but would you mind-”
“Not at all,” I said. She took the sweatshirt off and I put it on, so it would continue to smell like me. Because that was more real. That moment was more real than my desire for any other kind of legacy. Every moment with Ally whether it be studying or shopping or watching cat videos was more real. Those were moments I was proud to be a part of, and they were in a small way my legacy. Moments and experiences that would shape Ally’s life in small ways.
I smiled at her, and we used her wireless keyboard to surf the web for cat videos. We stayed up as long as possible giggling as kitties lunged at the giant paws of a gentle Great Dane, laughing as a cat walked backwards in endless circle to escape the box on its head, cracking up at the montage of cats preparing to jump on to a shelf or a table or a wardrobe and inevitably falling. Hours passed and before long I felt her sleeping against my chest, and then I too fell asleep.
By tomorrow all that would be left of me was that lingering scent on my sweatshirt and before long that too would fade and be gone. But that was okay; it was enough.