The realization that someday I would die and disintegrate into millions of grains of dust hit me hard, appropriately, when my father died and we exchanged his body for a heavy bag of gray ash. The realization that it would happen to my mother, my brother, my sisters, and everyone else around me hit me harder, sent me reeling and left me breathless. At first I comforted myself with the firm belief that despite the dustiness of our physical bodies in death, our souls each found a star to live on. Little yellow balls like beanbag chairs floating in warm dark space on which they could sit and watch the world below. The night sky winked at me like a shiny, familiar secret, and I felt safe. Then came another realization, while watching a video on the science of space: stars were nothing but exploding gases. They were not nearly substantial enough for souls to sit on. The night sky shattered like I had thrown a brick at it. I flirted briefly with notions of the afterlife, and moved quickly to reincarnation, looking for proof of it in the complicated eyes of a dragonfly sitting on my knee, or the pointy-teethed smile of our new cat. But it was not long before that too disintegrated and I was left with nothing but a vague hope that death was more complicated than it looked.
I was waiting tables in an Italian restaurant for the summer, working the lunch shift alone in the poorly ventilated dining room, and by the third week, I knew the regulars pretty well. Most were older couples, balding men with their wispy haired wives who asked me to please wipe the chair one more time before they sat down. Wednesdays were the days Glenn and Jan came in. They came for early lunches, and they both had sandwiches and tea. Glenn had buried his first wife in Maryland where he worked as a teacher and had come down to Delaware to retire and marry Jan. He spoke fast and she spoke slow. He knew about everything and she deferred to him. They were predictable in the way that fingernails grow and must be cut, and the movie theater will always serve popcorn. They were the baking soda of the world: throw them on a fire flaring up on the stove and they will damper it. They were the whites of the egg, the real estate ads in the paper, the sensible shoes, the unscented bar of soap, the two teas and two sandwiches with fries I was so grateful for on Wednesdays.
There is guilt heavy and needy on your shoulder, gathered like gray, grimy potatoes, like ticking bombs. We can see it in the purple bags under eyes, in the distracted creases on foreheads, in breaths coming hard and sad, and sweat beading on upper lips on cold days. Guilt from a million things—it’s flung out like fish food, glimmering seductively, and we swim towards it: hungry, stupid, open-mouthed. It never tastes good. It is a mealy peach, a dense shadow, an overcast day, a lonely spot in the lunchroom. It is the dull, aching pain of a headache, the disease you can catch at any age, and the one that can stay with you the longest.