Joseph and Hyden
Joseph stood up from a bench in the park. His eighty years had thinned his legs and arms. In his mind there spun the distractions of an entire life. He threw breadcrumbs at the pigeons and flying animals that scavenged for food. He looked at the setting sun, and shuffled his feet as he walked. Today, Hyden, the last of Joseph’s friends, would die.
The sun began to set on the densely populated city. Pacing slowly towards the hospital he remembered dinners and holidays in distant countries and lands. He had drunk heavily as a young man. He thought of the moments he had spent with his companions, the pleasure they had given him, the time, and the perspective. In these instances he often only remembered his own successes, triumphs, and the events that had defined him as a citizen of the world. His friends were easily pushed into the supporting roles. Nothing could have been easier. All of them were rooted in something that pertained to him. If he remembered their words it was because they had been speaking around him, if he saw visions and antics, it was for his pleasure. He wasn’t selfish in this way. They were witnesses at best. Now in his twilight years he was incapable of spending time alone. He no longer found pleasure in it. He was left with nothing of himself. Their acknowledgement had done more than just amuse him, it created him. He was unable to be single-handedly. Without the reflection of others, he simply disappeared.
As he approached Hyden's bed, Joseph smelled the approach of his own evanescence. Hyden’s chest rose and fell heavily. His breathing was deep and hoarse. Joseph could not contain himself from speaking. “You are the last of those who knew me,” he said. “When you are gone, I will be gone from the world too. You are taking my existence with you, all of my history. With what will I be left?”
Hyden smiled at his friend. He remembered times when they had walking by the boathouse in the park, laughing at the ducks and quacking at the swans. Their limbs had been shapely and tight underneath their baby blue tennis shorts. They could walk anywhere with their simple, elegant clothes. Women often turned to look at them. Occasionally they stopped. “Experience? Ha, that cheap con. That old maid. Plays hard-to-get but comes round in the end.”
They walked past Hans Christian Anderson and watched an old woman of ninety carefully unwrapping biscuits of shortbread. Her movements were slow and careful. “Look at that old bird,” said Joseph to himself. “Probably only eats twice a week. A chicken drumstick and a parsnip. Probably only sleeps an hour a night too. So resilient, the old. They’ll outlive us all.”
Hyden asked Joseph for the glass of water by his bedside. Joseph brought it close to the body of the dying man, who reached out his hand to find the glass being pulled away. He reached again, and again, each time swinging at the loose air. Joseph was pulling it out of reach. They had never grown out of kidding with each other. It had always brought them together. They adored one another’s humor. And for the sake of it, would excuse each other anything.
Joseph now picked at the hospital meal sitting at Hyden’s bed side. He ate the orange segments, crushing them with his lips and sucking the juice in though his teeth. The flavor was delightful and he thought suddenly of the parts of the tongue, the segments of his own body, each created to appreciate an individual sensation.
“Salt at the tip and sweet at the broadside. Even a place in the rear for umami. Truly peculiar, like savory but not quite. Blander, softer, annoyingly arcane as far as tastes go, a sort of Tofu or Y for vowels. Tell me about myself Hyden. Who am I?”
Hyden began to wheeze and chuckle. He was amused to find himself the keeper of his friend’s existence.
“When I go, you will still be you.”
“Yes, yes, but my me, not yours. Not the rest of the world’s. I’ve lived with my soul for centuries. We don’t need more kinship. It’s my identity in this lifetime that’s got me stumped.”
“No one knows your behavior better than you.”
“It is not how I behave! But how I am perceived!”
In Spring, one Paris day, Joseph and Hyden walked languidly onto the polo field. The bride’s family had erected a marquee by the river and a slide that led to the badminton courts. Canapés hovered at chest level, fish brontade, quails eggs, and salmon and dorade carpaccio. Joseph was particularly taken by the noixs St Jacques but only once helped himself.
“We walked the grounds and played tennis in our dinner jackets. We would have gone riding had the horses not been hibernating. You loved their names: Diablotin, Till, Surpressa, Bolero du Val. The weather was divine, the breeze and temperature perfectly refreshing. Towards the evening, if I remember, there was even warm rain.”
Joseph looked pleased at this, and pressed his friend further “The things I said. What of them?” The tips of Hyden’s mouth curled and he nodded slowly.
“You were concerned with synchronicity. One of the few people who saw premonitions and strange occurrences. You so often saw them that you had great difficulty in explaining yourself out of them. You became very skilled at rationalizing them into events of happenstance, and coincidence. But you were never entirely sure. On occasion, this even gave you pause for consideration. I often wondered if it ever went further than that.”
Joseph raised his eyes to the ceiling. “I was ravenous for life. A real glutton. But where did that get me? I’m still here. No broken bones, no enemies. I even said goodbye to my father before he died. What did excess ever do for anybody?”
Hyden adjusted his position uncomfortably. He was tiring and knew that little time was left. His heart rate began decreasing in tempo, now he could feel the cold embrace of eternity, creeping up on him with sensuality.
“Have you ever surprised yourself?” He asked. “Have you acted contrary to your will? Have you seen yourself change, have you ever shaken yourself of your own accord?” Joseph had been eating the hospital meal as Hyden spoke. He finished the potatoes and rice quickly, and wiped his mouth with his finger tips, squeezing the grease and rubbing it onto his socks. He had endured hardship, and knew what it was to be miserable. Endurance was a positive thing. But was enduring?
He was fond of not addressing questions about himself. Sometimes he even ignored them by addressing them. By doing so simply. There was always a small, irrelevant loop-hole that he could slowly jump through. In a legal framework he was constantly quibbling with himself, buying time. He often found shelter from his errors by admitting to them immediately, quickly and then moving on. He looked at the tired, withered frame of his friend, broken on the rack, and wheezing through a tattered blow hole. Darwin was wrong, he thought to himself. This isn’t the fittest.
For years Joseph had not been on speaking terms with himself. At an early age he had criticized his own foolishness. So hurt by his own words, he didn’t speak to himself for years. For most of his adolescence and young adult hood Joseph was internally brooding. Over time however a communication had slowly begun again. And with small words at first, comments, and rhetorical questions, a timid dialogue had begun. With time something resembling ‘normal conversation’ had resumed and the incidents of childhood were temporarily forgotten. Then, one day, a second situation arose, with echoes of the first, and Joseph began struggling with himself once again. He accused himself of hypocrisy, of spinelessness, of all the unspoken criticisms of the first incident that doubled within the context of a second. Joseph was ruthless with himself. He believed that honesty was imperative. This is me we’re talking about! The dispute was never resolved. As tempers flared regrettable unretractible words passed between them until in the end they parted ways and from pride never spoke again.
“I fell out with myself, you remember,” Hyden nodded that he did. Joseph was almost panting. “As if we’re on an island, alone together, sitting back to back. Who will know me when you’re gone?” Hyden shrugged his shoulders. “What can I give you? What would you be happy with? For people to be able to talk of you? For others to hear of you? For people to say ‘he was charming’, ‘a great card player?’
Joseph looked carefully at Hyden, and savored every word. He would do anything to believe him.
“Pitiful, tragic. At least it’s something.”
Hyden continued. “You will become single sentences, brief descriptions. Sometimes phrases that you appear in will not even contain a subject. And all of them coming from the mouths of people incapable of truly knowing you. You will have become filler for phone calls and letters. The best you can hope for is dinner conversation. I challenge you to rest in peace.”
“That’s just it.” Joseph replied. “Eternal peace. It’s simply too much. What is there left to hold onto? I am not an absolute creature. Flat, sheen, infinite surfaces frighten me. I need texture and inconsistency, ridges and corners to nick my shirt tails and pockets on. Something, anything to hinder a clean slate. I don’t want to be old and still starved of recognition. A dying comedian, giving his all for the final laugh that turns everything to gold.”
“You had issues with purity. You sometimes used the term catharsis too liberally. Your self-cleansing was too conceptual. I remember when you made love to a accordion player’s monkey. You tried to convince all of us it was for a higher cause.”
“We met between Etoile and Republique,”
“And mashed them both at my duplex in the financial district.”
“Purging myself. The result of a broken heart.”
“He was not attractive if I remember correctly.”
“He was not. But to overcome despair I was compelled to slap myself, to shake me. I’d never slept with someone so unnecessary…”
“Consider it a form of rebellion. Nothing could have been more difficult. Touching the physical depths whilst in an emotional paddling pool. The inconsistency between the two drove me batty.”
“But the next day you slept with your sister in law.”
“I had feelings for her. That was part of the healing process, after the fact.”
“A healing from the pain of sleeping with the organ grinder which was in turn an attempt to banish the pain of your broken heart?”
“Then why did you abstain from sex for an entire year after that?”
“Insulation, hermetic packaging, an epilogue?”
“You talk of clean slates. Of not wanting to build from scratch. You have ended by dragging the entrails of your life behind you. Like toilet paper stuck to your pants. You describe it as repairing the whole. But I only see more abuse.”
Joseph had worked as an archaeologist his entire life. He had begun by discovering the greatest works of art born of religious faith. For the last quarter of a century had watched them all be destroyed, smashed and demolished for precisely the same reason. The closeness-to-God feeling in art, he now believed, was borne out of a con, a finagling of the books, a heavenly form of aggressive marketing. Are these things even possible? Joseph had had it with genuine sentiment. It no longer existed.
“What of the good times?” Hyden smiled and raised his glass. “Tennis was always a solace. Badminton on a mountain top. But perhaps the greatest fun was in the martial arts. You’d mastered a dozen. You were quite the improviser. But then that was always the texture of our activities. Nothing ever changed there. Even though we drank heavily, we kept ourselves trim, we could never be accused of not being a little reckless.”
Joseph laughed and threw a pastry at Hyden's face. The old man opened his mouth and swallowed it whole.
The two friends looked each other over. Several quips about the declining physical body were made. Joseph joked at the size of his own ears. “From fifty to sixty they grew into rubber formations. They’re dripping like surrealist clocks. Have I not had my time? What’s wrong with looking forward to death? I’m excited. I mean at last, some novelty!”
“But have you disciplined yourself? Have you gone through long, progressive metamorphoses? Been able to execute long range passes to yourself, ten year plans, have you managed not to fumble them?”
Joseph rubbed his ears and took his time to answer.
“Do you see my spiritual development as fluke?”
“One can always reconstruct a logical path of arrival, after the fact. Your enlightenment was hardly premeditated,” Conversation stopped for a moment, as old quarrels bubbled to the surface. They quickly made noises with their mouths, dismissive, thoroughly Jewish noises that pushed the ancient dispute out of sight. Pffffffff ... Baahhh ... Icchhh... They would not indulge any of that now.
Joseph removed the small bag form his pocket and swayed it in front of him. “I have in here certain pills that if taken, will bring upon death in sleep peacefully. I am convinced it is a great opportunity. When I see you fading I’ll pop them, and we can race to the finish together,” Hyden furrowed his brow. “The digestion time would make you a Johnny-come-lately. Use a thinner membrane. Snort them.”
Joseph shuffled for a moment, tucked in his shirt and gathering his jacket together laid the pills out on the table. He used the flat end of a stethoscope to crush them, and then rolling up Hyden’s prognoses report inhaled the fine dust into his blood stream. Hyden looked at him in astonishment.
“We didn’t say when. I didn’t say go.”
Joseph looked at him, his eyes now wide, he sniffed.
“Not to worry, the dosage is three. I have one to go,”
Hyden shrugged his shoulders.
“But is it right?”
“Speak your mind,” said Joseph. “What are your arguments? Tell me honestly what you think. Just don’t bother me with the annihilation complex. This is nothing of the sort - a discovery!”
Hyden clicked the morphine release several times before he spoke.
“I understand your enthusiasm. Your acceptance of the unknown is commendable. But I’m not sure if opening the door yourself is quite the way. Death is of another world. You don’t just waltz in unannounced,”
Joseph stopped at this, and considered it for a moment. His eyes took in the sustain of Hyden’s expression. He looked down at his feet, he looked over his hands, his palms. For a moment he felt his own flesh and bone.
“If I accept your reasoning I do not snort the third. I live, but brain damaged. The two I have taken are most certainly beginning already. Are you asking that I go on as a vegetable?”
Hyden shook his head at him.
“You took the first two before asking my opinion. You made that choice yourself,” Joseph struggled to understand.
“You mean to go on living?”
“Perhaps, but with a slap on the wrist for knocking on deaths door. Turns out you weren’t ready after all,”
Hyden’s breath suddenly drew fast, he clutched at the sides of his bed, his eyes widened. His time had come, and it rushed upon now with speed. He turned.
“But the choice is still yours. If you still want to go, go now. The starting gun has fired.”