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the astral audience

There are certain moments that I’ll always remember. Joanne and Francis stopped by our 50-square-meter apartment on Rue de Wattignies. We had orange walls in our tiny kitchen. Joanne was very overweight and she waddled more than she walked. I remember the coffee we served her was too strong — we liked strong coffee — and instead of saying anything, she had a cross look on her face and she discreetly watered down the coffee herself. She thought no one would see her — little did she know that I was watching her out of the corner of my eye. That look and that gesture are imprinted in my brain. My neural circuits, however they’re wired, all unanimously decided that this was a moment worth saving, and 15 years later, the image flashes somewhere in my frontal lobe, behind my eyeballs.

Immediately next to the looping image of Joanne rejecting our coffee, an image of Joanne’s corpse springs up like a tired beached whale washed up on a queen’s bed under a duvet cover. While Francis tucked in her dead body as if it were a child he was wishing goodnight, I caught a glimpse of the color of the skin — a blue-grey that I’d never seen before. He didn’t know I was watching him out of the corner of my eye.

I drank a glass of “Oasis” from her refrigerator, wondering if it was one of her purchases in her final days. Food and drink taste different when they were purchased or prepared by a dead person. In the face of death, it’s either a psychological phenomenon that sugar doesn’t taste as sweet or a physical phenomenon that the molecular structure of sugar actually bends in mourning.

I also have the image of Francis’ corpse, but it’s less like a short 3-second looping reel and more like a fixed image, an elongated portrait of his face deflated and finally deprived of his ego, which worked so hard to hide his suffering. It seemed to me that the mortician did some kind of stitching around his lips as if they were hastily repairing torn denim, but I couldn’t bring myself to look at Francis’ dead face for more than a nanosecond because Francis wasn’t my family. I felt like an intruder. Staring at his dead body would be sacrilegious according to my own traditions about dead people, of which I had none.

The only instincts I could muster must have been from a past life. As I write, Joanne and Francis are somewhere in the astral, an undefined infinite space where I imagine, the consciousness is blasted wide open, and is no longer subjected to a corporeal vessel, a beating heart, a brain, or any other attachments. Other dead people are there but they don’t treat each other like company: they treat each other as one.

I hope Joanne is cackling somewhere at the taste of strong coffee. I hope she is not only audibly aghast, but she’s also throwing the coffee in someone’s face.

I wonder what image Joanne held onto of me. If only I could peer into her prism, into what remained. What traces were there of the young and uptight American fidgeting around a pot of coffee, speaking French clumsily like a cat with a dead bird in its mouth?

In the same vein, I recently realized that my life is a stage and all of my ancestors and a handful of other dead voyeurs are in the audience watching me. Some of them are eagerly awaiting the next plot twist: when will I unbox the transgenerational trauma of so-and-so who was burned at the stake? Up until this point, no one in the audience knew what to do with that box of tragedy: like a game of “hot potato,” one person handed it off to another. In some cases, the hot potato manifested as compulsive behavior, in other cases, it manifested as a sore hip or even cancer...

Are they disappointed that I had no impulse to bear children? I’m nearly 41 now, those days are behind me: it’s just me and this hot potato.

I didn’t think much of my maternal grandmother when she was alive but she’s returned in my midlife not to haunt me but to remind me of her joyful essence and her playful innocence. I might have confused her whimsy with a lack of intelligence — I used to value intelligence but today I value courage. The kind of courage where no fear of madness, sadness, or isolation will prevent one from sitting with oneself. The kind of courage that breaks rusty old patterns. The kind of courage that recognizes that life, even with a decaying body and brain, is an opportunity to be born over and over again.

Perhaps she’s here to tell me that there’s no disgrace in living an uneventful, simple life. The more I concede to a kind of mundanity, the more I feel a kind of extraordinary relief.

I was recently awarded French citizenship after over 15 years of living here. It is both the most and the least I’ve ever done to achieve anything. I don’t even know if I would classify citizenship as an achievement. It may be an awkward place to share this news and it may seem completely unrelated to the legend of Joanne and Francis. But really, what is life? Is it the passports you possess and the languages you speak? Is it a series of (forgettable) achievements?

Or is it a strong cup of coffee?
A hidden gesture.
A grimace. © 2024
(there are other sarah rose’s, but this is the new one)