Since the onset of my symptoms, I’ve been saving the last pages in the leather-bound notebook you gifted me—for this suicide note. I neglected to foresee how terrible my handwriting might be when the moment came, so please forgive my chicken scratch.
Where to start?
I remember you telling me that the Japanese are a notoriously difficult people. It’s precisely why I chose to exile myself to Japan. This is not a holiday, I told myself. You are a coward and cowards should not be rewarded. A couple of weeks after you last saw me, I moved to Tokyo with nothing but a backpack containing a week’s worth of clothes, electronics, and sundries—my “grave goods,” I called them.
You were right. At first, life in Japan was difficult and frustrating. Many of the locals I was initially exposed to were shy and reserved with me, which made me feel misunderstood and ignored.
The Japanese have these twin concepts, tatemae and honne, words that describe the difference between how a person acts and how they feel. Tatemae is the word for societal norms—etiquette and whatnot—while honne is the word for true feelings, which, more often than not, are the polar opposite of tatemae. As long as your tatemae fits the mold, no one gives a shit about your honne.
When the locals did engage me, my meek grasp of their language and customs left me unable to decipher whether they were acting out of tatemae or honne. I felt like every one of my interactions was a horrific blunder. I wondered if this was my comeuppance.
Eventually, I managed to find a job as the English customer service guy for a car parts company in Shibuya. There, my coworkers often cited the proverb “The nail that stands up is hammered down.” It’s a phrase used as a coping mechanism for proactively smoothing over dissention. A coping mechanism—that’s what I convinced myself was the rationale for the nagging secret I carried with me abroad. I wanted to believe it was because I didn’t want you to watch me suffer. But the truth is, I didn’t want to suffer watching you watch me die. I even foolishly convinced myself that had I not been tested, I might never have gotten sick—the diagnosis being a consequence of tempting fate. I would look in the mirror and see my tatemae staring back at me.
Counteracting my honne abetted me in denying my condition. Nobody commented on my trembling grasp or increasingly strange twitches. With Japanese conflict avoidance as my salve, I’d grown an affinity for life in Tokyo. For the time, my lies—unchecked—became reality. I even came to love my anonymous corporate job.
Over my two-year stint in Tokyo, I accumulated a tiny apartment full of stuff. Sometimes I fancied myself a pharaoh, decorating his tomb in preparation for his journey to the fields of Aaru. Dishes, appliances, furniture (how did people anywhere else in the world survive without a kotatsu?), an elliptical trainer, camping gear, and countless knickknacks and fads. I even found a girlfriend and a group of friends larger than any I’d ever had in the States.
I considered ending my life in Japan. My doctor advised me to see about the Japan Society for Dying with Dignity. I met with a pleasant, old Japanese woman from Saga who told me she found her way to the JSDD when her husband caught pneumonia and refused medication. She told me he died “beautifully,” with his eyes closed. She said the JSDD’s mission was to support people’s rights to dignified, peaceful deaths. Their charter was primarily focused on avoiding things like feeding tubes and respirators, she said, as euthanasia is illegal in Japan. She helped walk me through the legalese of establishing a living will that informed doctors I refused to receive any life-saving treatments once I entered the terminal phase of my condition. I went along more because I enjoyed her company than anything else. I had no intention of risking a drawn-out, painful, lonely death. I wanted to die with dignity, not in agony.
Ultimately, I decided against ending my life in Japan. I worried it might burden you further with the cost and bother of repatriating my remains to be buried next to Ma.
It was on a trip back from the hospital, sitting in a “priority seat” reserved for people in need—a category that would soon include me—that I determined California would be my final destination. I’d learned that hundreds of people had been prescribed life-ending drugs there since physician-assisted suicide had been legalized in 2016. I also liked that the California law didn’t mandate an evaluation by a psychiatrist. The last thing I wanted was to confront my feelings about death.
It may not seem like it, but I’m scared shitless of dying. Still, having seen what happened to Ma, I’ve become more scared of life than death. So, I reached out to a pro-euthanasia group named Compassion & Choices, and through a string of referrals, I found Dr. Reynolds, who would prescribe me the means to my end.
I told those I cared about that I was traveling abroad for experimental deep brain stimulation therapy—a possible remedy for the dystonia they believed to be my affliction. A lie I desperately wished was the truth.
I sold everything I owned for the second time in my life.
I was shocked to find how much money I had left after setting aside the ten thousand dollars I figured you might need to cover my funeral costs. With nothing else to save for, I decided to use my sudden prosperity to gift myself one last adventure: a cruise from Yokohama to San Francisco, through Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. My newfound wealth afforded me a spacious veranda suite, larger than my Tokyo apartment. Twenty-two days and several stories above the water before an eternity beneath the ground.
A week before I walked out of my apartment building for the last time, a man stopped me, asking for directions—and I understood and answered him in Japanese. That night, I cried myself to sleep. The tears were born not of self-pity. I was sad to leave my life—these two years of real life I’d made for myself after learning of my impending expiration. I wanted more time, but my failing body had no regard for my wants. I was a marionette with increasingly fraying strings.
On embarkation day, after clearing security and immigration among the maze of checkpoints lining the Port of Tokyo’s halls, I found myself walking up the premium passenger gangplank of the Empress Polaris. I had opted for the latest boarding time in order to avoid idle chitchat while waiting in line. My cabin, on the penthouse deck, was a quick ride up the midship elevators.
I vividly remember opening the veranda door for the first time, walking out onto the balcony. I planted myself on the comfortable white chair overlooking the port and closed my eyes. The warm June wind caressed me to sleep.
When I awoke, the ship was already at sea. Groggily departing my cabin in search of food, I promptly bumped into my neighbor from across the hall, who was exiting her cabin as well—a pleasant, silver-haired woman. I was still a bit dim from my nap when she told me her name. I’m embarrassed to say I forgot it.
She invited me to follow her to the common eating area, Le Vue. There, we snacked on fried rice balls, calamari, and citrus shrimp cocktail.
Her story caused me to consider, for the first time, that there were hundreds of others on the ship with me. A twenty-two-day cruise in mostly chilly weather doesn’t attract many young singles or families. My fellow passengers seemed to be mostly well-traveled retirees. Based on the camaraderie at some of the tables around us, I gathered many on board were repeat passengers making their annual sojourn at sea.
Over a bottle of Vermentino, the silver-haired woman told me that her only daughter was due to have her first baby in two months. My neighbor was excited to be a grandmother after almost giving up on the notion as her daughter had recently turned forty. The woman’s husband would soon be retiring from his job as an executive for an American company in Japan but couldn’t spare the twenty-two days of vacation needed to join her on the cruise. He was flying in the day before our arrival to reunite with her in San Francisco.
After our wine was vanquished, I escorted my silver-haired neighbor back to our deck and we bid each other good night.
The next morning, at precisely eight, I heard our captain’s voice muffled outside my cabin: his initial daily announcement reminding us we were aboard the Empress Polaris and informing us of the news and activities for the day.
The first couple of days, I mostly resigned myself to the sundeck, working on an initial draft of this note on Empress Polaris stationary, reserving the last few pages in my journal for the genuine article. This journal is and was the centerpiece of my journey. I didn’t want my death to be a mystery to you, as my life had become since I’d gone abroad.
It wasn’t until the third day of the cruise, as we docked in our first port of call, that I had my next meaningful conversation with another passenger, after the rumbling mumblings of the captain’s voice that morning, announcing we’d arrived in Hakodate.
I thought it amusing that the first stop on my final adventure was to a place I’d already been. I was excited because I assumed most people would disembark and I’d have my pick of the loungers on the sundeck. Each night, the crew would remove towels from claimed loungers and each morning the hunt for a new lounger began again. As a late riser, I quickly learned to settle for a lounger toward the center-rear of the deck, with no view but of the loungers in front of and to the side of me. I felt like I needed to see the horizon to center myself. Though not as many passengers as I’d hoped had disembarked, I still managed to find an empty lounger against the edge of the ocean-facing side of the boat.
“Seat’s taken,” muttered the white-haired man lying beneath a thick, dark blue, velveteen blanket on the lounger to the left of the one I’d claimed, his accent distinctly British. That was my introduction to Peter “Don’t Call Me Pete” Ronson, retired ship chaplain of the Empress Polaris. Having served his holy duty aboard the ship for nearly two decades, he found himself out of place on land and so he used his generous alumnus cruise discount and untapped savings to return to life on the ship, only as a passenger rather than crew.
“I don’t see a towel on it,” I replied.
“Hmm … yes,” said the elderly Japanese man sitting on the lounger to my right. “Perhaps she is not coming today.” Kiichiro Sakamoto was sporting what I later came to know as his trademark style, regardless of temperature or weather: short-sleeved Hawaiian shirt, buttressed by thick red-and-black flannel pants, perhaps to offset the chill from his top half with warmth from below and vice versa in the heat.
“If I may, why do you want to sit on this chair?” he asked.
“It’s why we’re all on this boat, isn’t it? To see the ocean?”
“Interesting,” he said, followed by that intoned unn sound Japanese people make to imply considered thought and respect. “And why are you on this boat?”
“Peace and quiet,” I ventured to say, not quite lying.
Sakamoto made the unn sound again, then took my hand in his and shook it. His handshake was firm, his skin smooth but leathery—he’s lived a life longer than I ever will. My hand jittered within his grip. Every interaction, every experience seemed to serve as a reminder of what awaited me at our journey’s end.
“You must meet our friend Gavriella,” he said as I sat. “You two share much in common.”
“Your youth,” he said, then added with a chuckle: “and this bed.”
“If you ask me, much of the world’s decline can be attributed to youths sharing beds,” Peter mused.
On a twenty-two-day cruise, one is stuck on this moving metal island with all its inhabitants. Tribes form. I gathered that these two men had by now cemented their tribe on the ship’s sundeck.
My arrival had interrupted a debate Peter and Kiichiro were having about Kiichiro’s former job as a strategy consultant. More specifically, “the five whys.”
“By iterating the question ‘why?’ five times, the nature of any problem, as well as its solution, becomes clear,” Kiichiro explained. “Mr. Ronson over there seems to think the answer to the final why is always God’s will. Mr. Ronson believes the universe is a vibraphone, with God in control of the mallets, whereas I believe it’s all wind chimes.”
“And who directs the wind?” I asked.
“You mean, why is there wind?” Kiichiro smiled, looking up. “The sun. Wind is created when changes in temperature cause air to move from high- to low-pressure areas. Low-pressure areas are where the warm air is, because when air is warmed by the sun, it rises, leaving behind less air, so there are fewer air molecules and therefore less pressure. So, wind is created by our sun because it heats some areas of the Earth’s surface more than others, thereby creating lower-pressure systems. Next, ask me why there is a sun.”
“Better yet, ask him why he’s here wasting our time with meandering balderdash!”
“Too many whys,” I joked.
“Too many whys,” Kiichiro repeated, lowering his gaze to the pristine white deck beneath our feet. “That is why I am on this ship … Too many whys.”
He explained that he was recently retired and divorced. It seemed to me like he may have had a breakdown of sorts at work. One day, he decided that he was tired of answering people’s questions for a living. Peter then opined that were he to let God into his life, some answers might be easier to come by.
“Well, perhaps this god of yours holds the answer to the final question, and should I meet your god, I will ask this god why it exists. Until then, I will be satisfied with answers derived by mortals. And martinis,” Kiichiro retorted.
“Yes,” Peter said through gritted teeth. “I suspect for you, the final answer is always at the bottom of a glass.”
“And for you?” I asked Peter.
“Within the pages of the good book, naturally—erm, are you quite all right?”
My head and shoulders started flailing about involuntarily.
“I’m sorry. I should have mentioned, I have dystonia,” I said, rehashing my convenient lie. “It’s a neurological muscle disorder that causes occasional, involuntary muscle spasms. They’re not all this bad; usually my arms, legs, and head just do a bit of shaking.”
The conversation meandered from there, but I remained somehow rapt—fascinated to find these two men who’d lived full lives still be so immersed in the congress of living. For me, there was something magical about a definitive expiration date. Having one made it easy to decide whether debates were worth having or problems were worth solving. Most were not.
By the time the sun had set, I’d secretly nicknamed them Statler and Waldorf, after the two ornery old men who harrumphed at everything on The Muppet Show.
At their insistence, I forwent my plan to dine alone in my room, as had become my custom on the first few nights, and joined them at the Royal Fir, the ship’s Alpine-themed restaurant, which featured a menu of game meats and “nontraditional mountain faire.”
I remember thinking the restaurant’s decor was amusingly what one might expect from a designer whose only experience with mountain lodges were those depicted in Disney cartoons: tables made of reclaimed dark woods, chairs fashioned out of antique chests, and faux hunting trophies glaring at diners from their perch atop walls.
Peter was already seated at the table and perusing the wine list when I arrived. He wore a black tuxedo—one from his early days on the ship by the looks of the shoulder pads and satin flares—his neck adorned with a clergy collar.
I’ve never been comfortable with the breaking of ice. Even the most basic customary pleasantries escape me sometimes. “I didn’t know chaplains wore clergy collars,” I blurted out in lieu of “Good evening.”
Peter seemed to take my rude observation in stride, even commending me for noticing. He explained that as a young seminarian, he’d spent some time in a clinical chaplain program at a hospital in one of London’s suburbs. Since he was a seminarian but not an ordained pastor, nurses would ring administration asking what a “young student—too young to be a minister” was doing in the hospital offering prayers and counsel. So, he dabbled with wearing a clergy collar and immediately noticed that no one questioned him or his role. Thus, to that day nearly forty years later, he still wore it.
I remember his collar story so vividly, not only because of what happened next, but because it brought me some comfort then, knowing that even holy men lied in achieving their aims. It’s not that I believed my reasons for hiding my secret behind lies were as noble as his, but—nonetheless—we both lied for what we believed were worthy causes.
“Ah—Signore Ronson!” The belting voice of the beautiful, dark-skinned woman with curly red hair behind me gave me a start. Casually placing her hand on my shoulder to balance herself, her touch raised every hair on my body. With her free hand, she removed her high-heeled shoes and sat down beside me. She was wearing a sparkling teal gown.
“I am so glad I arrived at the end of your story, Signore Ronson. I am afraid I could not bear to hear it again.”
Peter chortled. “Yes, quite. Well, in my defense, I was asked.”
“I am—a sorry to be so rude,” she said to me, her green eyes glinting. She turned in her chair to face me and offered an impeccably manicured hand. “Gavriella Nivola, from Sardegna. Who are you and what do you do?”
Gavriella’s directness was a stark contrast to anything I’d experienced in Japan. My anxious silence was likely an unmistakable indication I’d been taken aback by her forwardness. That, and my arms flailing about involuntarily.
“Scusi!” she said, withdrawing her hand with a grin at what must have been my very unattractive first impression. “We have a phrase in Italian, col cuore in mano. It means, ‘to wear your heart on your sleeve.’”
“Oh, Gavriella, I see you’ve met Kerouac Jones,” Kiichiro said as he arrived.
And so, nineteen days before I was to die, I met my soul mate.
“Ciao, Signore Sakamoto!” Gavriella said. “I am so sorry I could not join you this day on the lido deck.”
He nodded politely. “Well, were it not for your absence, we never would have met our new friend. So—it would seem fortune has smiled on us all. While you were off on your day of adventure, we recruited a fourth musketeer.”
“Certo. Now I know your name, Kerouac Jones. But I do not know what you are doing here?” She apologized for being nosy, but—like me—the fact that we were among the youngest passengers on the cruise by several decades did not escape her. She was curious what drew me to the cruise, forcing me to contend with the one question I’d successfully skirted throughout a full day of chatting with Messrs. Ronson and Sakamoto. Is this where my cowardice ends?
“My mother died,” I told her, despising myself for using Ma’s death as a crutch. “We were very close.” Still, it was a simple, honest answer. Another convenient lie. Anyway, I surmised no one would question it, out of respect.
“Your mother died … so you take a cruise?” Gavriella asked, proving me wrong.
“I thought you were going to San Francisco to treat your dystonia,” Pete said.
“Yes …” I stumbled, now my head ticking again, joining my arms, I must have looked like a tube man balloon. “That, too. I’m sorry I didn’t bring up my mother earlier. It’s a … touchy subject for me. That’s probably the real reason I’m here. My mother’s dead. I just needed time away from the world to process … things.”
As dinner progressed, among my intermittent spasms, we became more acquainted. Gavriella was born into some affluence, the daughter of Sardinia’s primary exporter of bottarga, “the poor man’s caviar,” she told me, which over the years had become more valuable than its highbrow relative.
She’d developed a fondness for traveling by cruise ship and yacht and was sailing around the world in various vessels, penning a book about her journeys. Unabashedly living a life of leisure, enjoying and documenting her adventures.
Peter kept referring to our foursome as the four musketeers. With each day, I felt as though his demeanor toward Gavriella and me became increasingly paternal. The four of us hung out, played card games, and explored the ship together.
When we docked at the Russian port of Petropavlovsk, Kiichiro insisted we join him at the hot springs there. It was then—on our sixth day at sea—that I remarked to Gavriella that I felt as though Peter and Kiichiro had adopted us. And in her usual coarse-but-charming humor, she whispered, “Well, then, I suppose we should not tell them what we’ve been doing at night.”
Gavriella found humor in everything, and the more I became the catalyst of her smiles, the more I suffered. The truth is, I felt guilty every time we were together. I wanted so desperately to tell her. But what had begun as a whisper of a tryst evolved into a romance founded on a lie, and I worried admitting the latter would dissolve the former. It’s silly to think so in hindsight, but I do regret not applying Kiichiro’s five whys to my circumstance. It would have been plain to see that the consequence of telling the truth was better than the alternative. But lies compound with interest, and with them the specter of truth grows increasingly ominous in the mind of the liar.
The days that followed Petropavlovsk were a blur. Gavriella told me time functions differently at sea and she was right. Like a twenty-two-day-long performance of Waiting for Godot, with every passenger’s design for Godot being different. From the onset of the play, the purpose is not to find Godot—we know he’s never coming—but to reach the end of the performance so that we may retroactively inspect and celebrate the haze of inconsequence bookended by the open and finale.
“Look around you,” the captain’s voice crackled through the overhead speakers. “We are entering Alaska’s magnificent Inside Passage.” It was our eighteenth day at sea. Gavriella was sitting naked on the terrace, sketching the picturesque fjords and lush island scenery surrounding our ship.
I was unwell that day. The colder temperatures outside seemed to aggravate my condition. I could barely stand, let alone move, yet Gavriella insisted I walk it off. “One leg in front of the other, caro,” she told me en route to the sundeck.
“Caro?” I asked, foolishly assuming it was short for Kerouac since she pronounced my name “Karoac.”
“Sì, caro,” she said, explaining that caro was an Italian term of endearment.
In her affection, I found strength. Or maybe through it, I found respite from pain.
When we reached the sundeck, we saw totem poles peeking out along the tree-lined shores. Peter told us he’d done mission work there. I remember being surprised to learn Russian settlers had left a legacy of onion-domed churches strewn about in the thicket. Peter said his mission had appropriated one as their cloister—only to learn that many of the natives had already converted to Christianity and then reverted to their native gods when the Russians left.
The next day, we docked in Victoria. Gavriella disembarked to buy writing supplies and mail some letters. Kiichiro and Peter went with her while I begged off, staying behind to spend some time in the spa. The wet sauna promised relief.
It was then and there, surrounded by thick eucalyptus-infused steam, that I was reminded of this journal. Overwhelmed with guilt, I couldn’t believe it had been a full twelve days since I’d put pen to paper on my suicide note. Life with Gavriella had been so effortless, I’d neglected to consider my death.
Back in my cabin, I looked over what I’d written, and then scrapped most of it—a jumbled mess of apologies and sentimental memories of my childhood. Suddenly all my words felt cold and empty. I started again: Dear Sis, I love you, and wrote until my wrist became numb. But when I read it over, my intended heartfelt, apologetic eulogy had transformed into a confession of my love for Gavriella.
I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was still dying. Even if I didn’t take my life in San Francisco, my condition would quickly deteriorate. There was no hope that what we had might survive beyond the waning days of this cruise.
If, after reading this, you can forgive me, Sis, then maybe you can find her, and show her this journal. Perhaps she might forgive me, too.
Shortly before midnight on our nineteenth day at sea, the North Gorda Ridge Volcano near the coast of California erupted.
The loss of GPS signal on the television screen in my cabin was my first indication that something had gone awry. I’d been monitoring our ship’s location while Gavriella slept, waiting for a rather severe bout of neck spasms to acquiesce so that I might sleep again. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, searing hot plumes of electrically charged volcanic ash rising above the oceanic blast had apparently disrupted all communication, causing our little ship icon on my TV map to disappear.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking.” At 1:11 a.m., we heard the captain’s voice broadcasting through the discrete speakers in the cabin’s ceiling, rather than blaring in the hallway outside. His voice sounded clear, loud, and urgent. He told us the ship was entering a state of emergency due to navigation and communication equipment failure. A “significant oceanic volcanic eruption” had occurred approximately sixty nautical miles ahead of us, and now a tsunami was headed our way. My heart nearly jumped out of my chest. His words are etched in my brain: “I want to ensure you this tsunami represents absolutely no risk to our ship. This shockwave sent across the sea, resulting from the volcanic eruption, is a much greater concern to those ashore when it reaches shallow water than to us aboard this ship.”
Outside the cabin window, I saw lightning like I’d never seen before. The soot-filled fog burst with lightning balls at sea level, surpassing the most powerful thunderstorms I could remember. “Please remain inside your cabins. This is an order. Those of you with verandas, do not open or even touch the veranda doors.” The alarm chimes that followed startled Gavriella awake.
Outside my door, I heard increasingly louder murmurs of passengers disobeying the captain’s orders in the hallway. Having never shuttered the blinds on the veranda doors, I could see the flickering fog envelope the Empress Polaris. I imagined a flaming Norse ship burial for us all.
Convinced of our impending doom, I contemplated tearing these pages out of my journal, rolling them in a corked wine bottle (after drinking said bottle of wine in one swoop), and affixing it to my ankle by rope. But Gavriella would have none of it. “This is okay; you are lucky!” She winked sleepily at me. “I have no intention of dying today,” she added as a matter of fact. “And neither should you.”
Overwhelmed by emotion, I confessed, “How do you do it, Gavriella Nivola?”
“What? I was born a redheaded bella italiana. It comes natural.”
We both laughed.
We never said the words, so I’m unsure now if she understood that my awkward question meant I love you, but I choose to believe that her response implied she loved me back.
At four in the morning, the captain announced we were no longer sequestered to our cabins, but we were still not allowed to step foot outside. With no possibility of returning to sleep, Gavriella suggested we head to the Medjool Court on the aft fifth deck, since it was open at all hours. My legs felt stiff and my feet were throbbing. “My dystonia’s acting up. Couldn’t we just try to go back to sleep?” I begged her.
“No,” she said, pulling me up by my hands. “Come, caro, we go.”
I was unsurprised to see Kiichiro was already present at the Medjool Court, bellied up to its scimitar-shaped bar. He was watching and listening to the ornate porthole windows get bombarded by a hail of brittle, glass-like spheres. The ship was swaying wildly in the ocean. My feet were firmly on the floor, but the room felt like it had become untethered from the rules of gravity. Grasping the counter, a panic attack came on. I told myself I wanted solely to survive for the sake of this journal finding its recipient, but I was probably just scared to death—of an end I could not control.
“Lightning is one of the least understood weather phenomena,” Kiichiro said, handing Gavriella and me shots of Chartreuse.
“What?” I asked, trying to keep my grip. Holding on to whatever thread of conversation was offered.
“Colliding ice—or in our case, churning magma particles in a cloud updraft—are thought to generate most of the charge that produces lightning.” He pointed outside, then tapped his chin. “Although, this does not fully explain why so much energy is generated.”
“The five whys?” I asked.
He nodded. “Look at it.” He squinted as another slew of blinding white bolts blinked outside the porthole and the lights flickered. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Maybe Peter’s got a point,” he said, shrugging—a grin forming on his face. “But don’t tell him I said that.”
He shouted, “Kampai!” And we emptied our glasses. The laughter, banter, and heavy drinks that followed provided a welcome relief and release. Whether it was anxiety or sleep deprivation, I allowed myself to partake in them with abandon.
I awoke alone in my bed the following night—a full sixteen hours since entering the Medjool Court—with the mother of all hangovers and absolutely no recollection of how I’d gotten to my cabin. The room felt colder, emptier. I noticed the small collection of personal trinkets, toiletries, and things that Gavriella had slowly been accumulating in my cabin were gone. The TV was still on, tuned in to the map channel where I’d left it last night—still with no indication of our ship’s location. I tried ringing Gavriella’s cabin, but the phones weren’t working, so I went out in search of her.
The Empress Polaris had sailed clear of the storm; the ocean was now calm. I saw some people venturing out to the lido deck and so gathered that the moratorium on going outside was over. Crew members were sweeping and washing sticky ash from various exposed surfaces and furnishings. Looking up at the clear, new moon night’s sky, I nearly collided with an officer holding a sextant. He explained he was one of the first officers on the ship and that as the captain explained in a message I’d clearly slept through, they were trying to optimize their route directly to San Francisco, as all navigational and communications mechanisms were inoperative. Without radar and GPS, we were at constant risk. “The ball lightning seems to have caused electromagnetic damage to some of the ship’s equipment,” he said, “though miraculously our engines seem to have been unaffected.”
The sundeck was chained off with a PARDON OUR DUST sign. Volcanic dust, I reminded myself. We sailed over an erupting volcano. Upon heading back inside, I found Peter and Kiichiro in the cardroom.
It was a bad place to receive bad news. Likely the least fancy space on the ship, the room was utterly functional—tables, benches, sparsely decorated with objects borrowed from the infamous Brown & Bigelow Dogs Playing Poker paintings. Some people had humorously nicknamed it the “Doquarium” because it was surrounded by glass windows on three sides. Peter must have seen me walk by because he rushed to meet me at the door.
“Son, how are you holding up?”
“Barely,” I said more loudly than intended, yielding a few shushes and tsks from the room.
He gently pushed me back out into the hallway. “Are you truly so daft, Kerouac? I want to demand to know what you were thinking, but by the smell of your breath, I gather it wasn’t you speaking through your mouth last night. Why, if you weren’t already dying, I might wish that upon you!” He sighed, then muttered, “Forgive me, Lord.”
I had no recollection of doing anything aberrant the previous night. My heart began sinking down to the pit of my stomach. I assumed I’d gotten sloshed into oblivion, then passed out at some point. But …
“You said, ‘if you weren’t already dying.’” Is that what this is about? I wondered. Did I accidentally blurt out the truth? “I’m sorry, Peter. I really have no recollection of what happened yesterday. I must have drunk myself into a blacked-out stupor. Were you there? I don’t even remember seeing you. Please, Peter, if you could only tell me what—”
“Oh, shut it!” His face was turning red, his eyes welling with tears. “Allow me to refresh your memory, young man. At approximately six in the morning, you turned up at my cabin door and insisted I come with you. ‘It’s an emergency!’ you said. So, follow you I did to the Medjool Court, whereupon you proposed to Gavriella and asked me to officiate your wedding. Initially Gavriella and I assumed you were playing out some drunken joke, but you became petulant. You proclaimed to the whole bar that you were certain of two things: your love of Gavriella and your Huntington’s prognosis.”
I was speechless and remained so as he told me that I’d grabbed Gavriella and demanded she marry me, that she come to the clinic in San Francisco with me and see me off. He said I started talking nonsense about Egyptian and Norse burial rituals and that every word out of my mouth was absorbed by Gavriella like a sharp stab against her skin.
“I’m sorry,” I said, swearing I remembered nothing. Hell, I still don’t.
“If it’s forgiveness you seek, you needn’t ask it of me, Kerouac Jones. As a man of the cloth, I’m obliged to forgive you, even if I might vehemently disagree with your actions. Gavriella, on the other hand … She may need a bit of convincing. You’ve mending to do there.”
“What could I say to her?” I asked, defeated. “‘I’m sorry I lied to you about me dying?’ Come on, Peter. My deceit is unforgivable.” Another woman lay hurt in my wake.
“Maybe,” he said as I stood there, frozen before him. “But just the same, you ought to go to her.” Peter patted my shoulder. “Make the most of the time you have left, Kerouac Jones,” he whispered. “God be with you.” He then turned and walked back inside the cardroom. My eyes followed him as he returned to his seat across from Kiichiro.
I was taken aback by his gaze—Kiichiro sat, arms crossed, five cards lying face down before him, staring at me, through me, beyond me. Likely wondering, Why?
Devastated and ashamed, I retreated to my cabin, unable to bear the thought of facing Gavriella. I had few doubts she would forgive me. But then what? The end of my story had already been written. Were we to reunite now, I would spend the rest of my days watching the woman I love come to terms with my inevitable demise. Once again, as I’d run away from you, Sis, I convinced myself that seeing someone I loved suffer because of me was a crueler option than escape. One might be able to remedy the past, but they cannot change the future, right? Rather than succumb to love and grief, I committed to the completion of this journal and my plan:
– See the doctor
– Get my scripts
– Find a nice place with a view
– Finish my note
– Sleep forever
Having affixed the DO NOT DISTURB magnet to my door, I instructed my concierge that I was not to be disrupted by housekeeping or anyone else until we reached San Francisco, as I had important work to finish. My suicide note.
I spent the remainder of my time feverishly scribing on the verandah, only venturing back into the cabin for the occasional minibar raid or use of the toilet.
When there were knocks at the door, I would wonder, Gavriella?—never venturing to discover who it was. You’re saving her from more pain, I selfishly lied to myself like a broken record, clasping my seat on the veranda with each knock, as if to keep from succumbing to instinct and running to her.
Three days later, we arrived in San Francisco.
You must be curious about what it felt like to travel through time. For me, the feelings didn’t come until after the fact.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking.” I remember his last announcement verbatim. “I ask that you please stop whatever you’re doing and listen carefully… I know many of you are wondering why we haven’t disembarked yet. Those familiar with the San Francisco skyline may be wondering why it differs so greatly from what you might have been expecting. At the sound of the alarm, I ask that you all report to your muster stations immediately for an emergency briefing by the United States Coast Guard.”
When I got to my muster station, I was astounded by the holograms’ realism; they were totally opaque and three-dimensional. In fact, I had no idea that the physicist and meteorologist weren’t really there until I saw their replicas projected in perfect synchronicity against other muster stations.
“Over three hundred and fifty million bolts of lightning blast the Earth’s surface every year, and frankly, we know very little about how lightning works,” said the meteorologist.
“We know even less about volcanic lightning,” added the physicist.
I wish I could remember everything they said. It was something to do with the magic of lightning. They speculated that cosmic rays—energized particles from space—had collided with the volcanic ash cloud around our ship and sparked an avalanche of energy that somehow poked a hole in space-time.
Until this cruise, I’d always assumed the multi-universe theory to be a hypothetical notion that only existed to keep physicists entertained at cocktail parties or provide scientific merit to Twilight Zone–esque scenarios requiring philosophical and existential suspension of disbelief. But there, staring into the verdant high-rise-filled skyline of San Francisco, listening to scientists fail to explain how we arrived twenty years after we left, I felt an immense calm. We’d arrived.
Over the last two thousand nautical miles, in what all souls aboard experienced as a four-day journey, our ship had traveled twenty years forward in time. The shock of our temporal displacement didn’t affect me as it did the others, who’d docked to learn of loved ones gone, husbands and wives remarried, children grown. Their reactions ran the gamut of emotional states. My to-do list was my mantra.
– See the doctor
– Get my scripts
– Find a nice place with a view
– Finish my note
– Sleep forever
Among the jumble of memories as we disembarked for the last time, one stands out.
I wish it could have been a hug or even a word from Gavriella, or a friendly farewell from Peter or Kiichiro. But we never spoke nor saw one another again after that night outside the cardroom. I’d remained in self-imposed confinement in my cabin until we docked, then rushed to disembark first—only to find the elderly woman with silver hair, from the windowless stateroom across the hall, frozen in catatonic shock. Other than our meal together that first night of the cruise, I’d only occasionally seen her in the hallways and common rooms. Her cabin door was ajar.
She was sitting there, staring blankly at the virtual porthole screen displaying the correct date for the first time since we’d entered the ashen fog: June 28, 2037. The Earth had orbited the sun twenty times since our departure, but for us—on the ship—only twenty-two days had passed. Worse, we’d sailed through the time-space anomaly eighteen days into the cruise, so—twenty years in four days. Her husband was likely dead. She’d missed her only daughter’s childbirth. Her granddaughter’s first twenty years of life. I understood her madness. Her eyes were locked on a horizon beyond the digital projection of the San Francisco pier. I ran back into my cabin and called for help, berating myself for forgetting her name.
I was surprised when the first responder to arrive at her cabin was the captain. In my mind’s eye, his disembodied voice had been something of a bulwark—if not the voice of God, then of steadfastness. The pasty-skinned, pudgy man in front of me with a Swedish flag lapel pin on his uniform could not have been more different from what I’d imagined.
As orange-uniformed men arrived to wheel the woman out—or hover her out, whatever they did with those magnetic contraptions—some people walking beside me on the gangplank muttered, “How sad,” and, “What a pity.” But I was resigned to pretend I didn’t give a shit. I was worse off, after all. I was still dying. Arriving in a different time made no difference to me; the last few grains of sand in my hourglass still meandered, circling toward the abyss.
Once the bubble-suited quarantine people were done scanning, poking, and prodding us, the port of call receiving crew was very kind and apologetic. Those of us staying in suites were given priority. Various uniformed personnel kept offering us food, drinks, even compensation—since none of our cards or currency seemed to work anywhere or be worth anything—but I just wanted to make a phone call.
They gave us these “Shades” people now use instead of phones. The lenses were hard for me to put in my eyes with all the fidgeting, but I managed to do so without blinding myself. Then they put us in rooms and gave us rudimentary lessons on how to swipe and swerve to make artificial objects move and interact with hybrid sites and make calls.
Seeing the phone icon gave me chills. I yearned to look you up, to find and call you—a series of scribbles and notes in a journal couldn’t suffice now. Somehow, I’d decided two years was an agreeable amount of time to be gone, but twenty-two years seemed egregious. My hands shook from both HD and trepidation as I searched for you.
I made quick progress. Your Facebook page was still up. You’d settled in Fairhope, Alabama, and changed your last name to Smith. But why does the word “Remembering” appear by your name? A paralyzing chill went down my spine as I swiped through your profile. An endless list of well wishes and rest in peace messages—pictures and anecdotes of a life from which I’d severed myself.
Soon enough, I found your obituary on the Huntington Disease Foundation’s death notices site:
KYGER SMITH (née JONES) 1979–2029
KYGER WAS A CREATIVE, TALENTED, KINDHEARTED, AND INDEPENDENTLY FIERCE WOMAN. A DAUGHTER, A SISTER, A WIFE, A MOTHER. SHE LIVED IN FAIRHOPE, ALABAMA; AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND; PERTH, AUSTRALIA; AND TOKYO, JAPAN. KYGER LOVED ART AND FAMILY MOST, AND SHE PASSED SURROUNDED BY BOTH. SHE IS SURVIVED AND GREATLY MISSED BY HER HUSBAND, THEODORE; HER CHILDREN, VAUGHN AND KEROUAC; AND MANY FRIENDS AT HOME AND AROUND THE WORLD.
All-aloneness. Temporal dissonance. Is this what it feels like to travel through time?
Poor Kyger … Why did she name her child after me? Why was she in Tokyo? Why …
No. I decided I couldn’t go down that path. If anything, her death strengthened my resolve. I remained dying; this remained the end of my journey.
Rest in peace, Sis. I’ll see you soon.
There was still one person I loved—in this time, on this Earth—to receive my note.
I’m sorry for all that I’ve done that has caused you pain and now I must add burdening you with my suicide note-cum-eulogy to that list.
I’ve thought about this day for a long time. But everything seems so foreign now. I’m being treated to a germicidal light bath in this prep room, surrounded by a collection of medical equipment. An anesthesia machine is plugged into my veins, awaiting the command to knock me out. In the meantime, the cardiograph assures me that I’m still alive. Everything is awash in a depressing blue hue; but I want you to know that I’m smiling.
My procedure is in two hours, and there’s an analog clock on the wall staring down at me. It counts forward—I, backward.
I pray your family fared better than mine.
After learning of my sister’s passing, I struggled to wrestle my sanity from the setting depression. Reciting what remained of my to-do list helped.
– See the doctor
I called Dr. Reynolds’s office.
It was strange having to see people face-to-face. I’d Skyped and used FaceTime before, but I hadn’t expected to speak to anyone but my assigned doctor about my plan.
“SFPC,” a woman said, appearing before my eyes.
She had her Shades color set to an opaque black that hid her pupils. Staring at them, I fell into a daze, helplessly paralyzed for a moment.
“San Francisco Palliative Care?” she clarified, her tone urging me to state the reason for my call. When I still couldn’t muster a reply, she sternly asked, “How may I help you?”
She wasn’t part of the plan. Then again, neither was my sister’s death. Or traveling through time. “I’m … My name is Kerouac Jones. I … had an appointment with Dr. Reynolds.”
She raised her eyebrows, the right higher than the left. “With Dr. Reynolds?” she repeated incredulously.
“Yes …” I hesitated. “Twenty years ago. I’m calling from Pier Twenty-Seven.”
“Oh, my good Lord!” she exclaimed, putting two and two together. “You were on that ship?” She’d heard of our plight, she told me. “Such a crazy thing to happen. Space and time all warped up together. Doesn’t make sense to me. Still … here you are. But why are you calling us? We’re the palliative care center. They’ve got the clinics next door set up for you all. Do you want me to transfer you?”
I told her who I was, what my appointment was for.
“Oh, my good Lord!” she said again, but this time her retinas lost their wanderlust sheen and her brow furrowed. “Dr. Reynolds retired more than ten years ago. This is Dr. Brown’s office now. He’s taken over her palliative care practice.”
“Will he still honor Dr. Reynolds’s care plan?” I asked her point-blank. “Is euthanasia still legal in California?”
“May I place you on hold for a moment, Kerouac Jones, while I search for your file?”
The pleasant videos playing while I was on hold—foamy waves crashing against corroding cliffs at sunrise, a breeze whisking sand to and fro across ancient riverbeds at sunset—reaffirmed the inevitable conclusion that those who die in peace must find: death is beautiful.
Months Years ago, in Tokyo, after my doctor confirmed the symptoms I presented were my unglorified foray into stage three Huntington’s, I hurried back to my threadbare studio apartment on the eleventh floor, opened my window, and nearly jumped out of it. Why’d I choose to live out the last years of my life in Japan, I asked myself, a country where I knew no one and didn’t understand a thing? Why had I chosen this place to find out what my mother’s wicked ancestral genealogy had in store for me?
Since everyone with Huntington’s has the same basic genetic mutation that acts as a self-destruct sequence for their bodies, the formation of communities is almost inevitable. I, too, came to know other expats with the same bug in their code. I’m haunted by their memories, too afraid to learn of their likely fates. The more prevalent neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s lack Huntington’s deadly preciseness: only a minority of those cases have a defined genetic cause. It irked me that solutions proved so elusive for a problem so easy to define.
To qualify for California’s “aid-in-dying,” a patient needed to make two verbal requests at least fifteen days apart to their physician, plus another request in writing. When Dr. Reynolds and I first discussed my decision, she acquiesced as soon as the word Huntington’s was uttered. We covered several specific issues related to my chorea, pain control, the aid-in-dying drug, whether I was sure I didn’t want to die naturally in hospice care, and all that jazz. She also said she would need a second doctor’s confirmation of my condition. Having read up on the prerequisites, I informed her I already had it. She asked if I had consulted with my family.
“My mother died of HD; my dad doesn’t matter. I do have a sister, but …” I couldn’t think of what to say.
“Has she been tested?” Dr. Reynolds asked.
Back on my Shades at the pier, the image of a tumbleweed rolling across a desert plain blinked, replaced by an image of a portly salt-and-pepper-haired white man wearing a white lab coat over a pink-and-teal paisley shirt. “Hello, this is Dr. Brown. Are you Kerouac Jones?”
“That’s unbelievable, what happened to you. I …” He paused.
“Yeah, pretty crazy stuff. Listen, if you don’t mind, is my, um, care plan with Dr. Reynolds … Is that still okay?”
“Yes, well, I think you’d better come in. How soon can you get here?”
Cara, I’d like to tell you that my mind was blown by the self-driving vehicle that picked me up, the lack of any human drivers on the road, or that I gazed in wonder at all the hanging fauna adorning what were once crowded highways, made redundant by the efficiency of autonomous vehicles. But these were all distractions to me.
I waved off the Technicolor holographic adverts epileptically blinking at me from buildings on either side, inviting me to “swipe & enjoy” games, pornography, and news. Apparently, our arrival was second only to the celebration of the fifth anniversary of the last dollar ever printed. The dichotomy among items one and two on the news was too much for me to bear on my last day on Earth. I closed my eyes and felt my pulse. Savoring it, as if I might miss feeling it thump against my inner ear once I was dead.
The clinic’s building looked like a Tuscan villa. A plain terracotta arch led to a courtyard with hedges ornately manicured to depict a caduceus enveloped by two snakes and a pair of wings. As I sauntered through the courtyard, my Shades directed me to the correct office. Some offices were overcrowding, with my fellow passengers spilling out, but the office I sought was empty. I recognized Dr. Brown immediately. He greeted me at the door marked PALLIATIVE CARE and ushered me inside, past the nurses’ station.
Things happened so quickly, that—beyond an initial pleasantry or two—I can hardly recall what Dr. Brown said. The only words I can remember with clarity are: “Mr. Jones, your condition is … curable.” Though not by a drug, he tells me. The cure isn’t one I can take in a pill: it must be delivered into my brain using injections.
I’d known about CRISPR gene editing and the promise it held for conditions like mine. But notions of a cure were too distant on the horizon—“the future.” That was the promise of gene therapies in my day, something that could “edit out” the evil mutation that underlies all cases of Huntington’s: an expansion of three letters of the DNA code, a repetitive sequence of the genetic letters C-A-G, near one end of the Huntington’s gene. But even with such a therapy, my DNA would remain unchanged, meaning that every cell of a mutation carrier would still have the mutant Huntington’s gene—it’d just be stopped from making any mutant protein. Anyway, it was hopeless at the time.
But this is a different time. Dr. Brown tells me I need to go into surgery right away. “You’re a special circumstance, Kerouac Jones. Normally we’d have to put you into triage, run some more tests, but this crazy space-time thing—well, let’s just say they’re making all sorts of exceptions. So, what do you say we kick this thing?”
“Yes, beat that HD once and for all.”
“I … guess?” I wish something more profound would emerge from my lips. I wish my body would react more viscerally. I might be getting cured! I might not die today! Why am I so numb?
“That’s the spirit!” He laughs, then swipes a finger in the air in front of his shades, signaling something to someone.
At last, one reaction comes—ahead of all others. “When?”
“When did they … Because my sister …”
He tilts his head. “Oh.” He understands. “There were some promising trials over the past ten years, but frankly we’re still in what’s considered the experimental phase—just a very successful experiment, if you will. The odds of your survival are exponentially higher than euthanasia,” he quips.
I don’t laugh.
“Ah. I’m sorry. Doctor humor.”
A male orderly silently enters the room, toting a magnetic hovering gurney. I am handed a backless gown and politely instructed to disrobe.
Twenty years ago, this was to be my deathbed.
I make a dangerous promise to myself: If I make it, I’ll find you. I’ll make things right.
Two nurses meet me and the orderly in the hallway. They usher us into the room I’m in now and activate the UV3 lights, turning all things blue.
I’m “prepped”—physically, if not mentally. There’s scant room—and time—left for me to write; I’ve run out of space. It’s just as well. My wrist is stiff, and my pain tolerance is waning. I reflect on the reality that my brain is about to be infected by a terrible, wonderful man-made virus that was grown in a pig. Surgery is the only way to get this virus into both sides of my thalamus gland. From there, it will spread itself into all the infected parts of my basal ganglia, and then the rest of my nervous system, eating the Huntington’s gene and—with luck—curing me of my ailment. It’s invasive surgery, but my prognosis is good—exponentially better than before, anyway, as the good doctor so helpfully pointed out.
I asked my orderly to find you and deliver this notebook, should I not survive, though I hope to hand it—or at least these last few pages—to you myself. This, my renascence note.
For once, it would seem my timing is perfect. They’re coming back to move me to the operation room now. I want you to know it is in this moment, as I write these last few words, that I realize my tatemae and honne are a perfectly overlapping Venn diagram—col cuore in mano, cara.
Whether my eyes open again or not, Gavriella—I love you.
Here’s to second chances,
♥ K. J.