I had been riveted by the images on the screen to pay much attention to the man sitting next to me. The initial jolt of our otherworldly encounter had worn off soon after we started watching the narrative of my life on the large white screen – from diaper days to salt-and-pepper adulthood.
When the lights came back on, I blinked to readjust my vision to the bright light and, subtly, inched away from the stranger’s elbow. He offered an opaque smile and stepped around the coffee table, making himself comfortable in an armchair across from mine. I sighed with relief as he switched seats.
We were the only people in the room that appeared to be a home theater.
“You’ve lead an interesting life, Kurt,” he started, placing his hands in his lap. A thick gold ring with a round onyx gem adorned his fingers.
I could still smell his cologne. It reminded me of a sweet spice from my mother’s kitchen. Either nutmeg or star anise.
His inscrutable expression quickened my pulse and strangled my voice in my throat. He resembled an old George Clooney, with a precisely trimmed beard, dusky complexion and an imperious voice, metallic yet benevolent. Not silver nor platinum, but warm and vibrant like copper. He was wearing a black gown, like a magistrate’s.
I was dressed in a flimsy white gown, three size bigger.
And no socks.
All my life I’d hidden my feet. Even as a child, I’d never worn sandals, walked barefoot anywhere or gone swimming with other kids. The mere thought of exposing my feet mortified me.
My toes in particular disgusted and angered me, as though they didn’t belong to my body, but were attached to my feet by a snarling deity to chastise me. I avoided looking at my toes, but they were always in the back of my mind, steadily killing my confidence or joy. When I wanted to punish myself for something, all I have to do was take my socks off and let the sight of my toes disembowel me.
My second toe was much longer than the big toe and skinny as a matchstick. The third was half the size of the second while the pinky toe was barely the size of a kidney bean. I was a far cry from an Adonis, but nothing about my body humiliated me more than my toes.
Sitting next to the stranger, I winced at the sight of my disproportionate toes, the yellowing toenails - overgrown, unshapely. The big toenails had black lint from my socks lodged in their ragged corners. My cheeks flooded with shame, so I tucked my feet under the hem of the gown.
To make things worse, I was certain I was not wearing underwear next to this man, a head taller than me, solid, impenetrable, suffocating the room with his Socratic presence.
Maybe that was the purpose of my attire. To render me defenseless, like a baby just out of the womb.
Was I in the waiting room of heaven? Hell?
The room was small, sparsely furnished with a handful of armchairs, the large white screen. Tall bookshelves lined up all the walls, but instead of books, they stored DVDs. Thousands of them.
After having seen a chronology of my entire life sprawled on the unforgiving screen, I felt like a miscreant. Guilty. Bewildered.
How long had I watched that chronology of my life? An hour maybe?
That was speculation, of course. I had no means to gauge how long had I been sitting next to the magistrate. There were no clocks in the room.
Who are you? Where am I? What am I doing here? I wanted to scream, but I was afraid my voice would betray further how frightened and clueless I felt.
What if I just got up and ran? Would he stop me? Would he grab my gown and sit me back down like an unruly child? Give me a good tongue-lashing before resuming the interrogation, or whatever he had in store for me?
Surreptitiously, I looked around for a door. I checked all the walls. There were six of them - none of them had a door. Maybe it hid behind those DVD shelves.
No single window either. There were no lamps, no wall sconces, no chandelier, no candles either.
How did the light get in here? I looked up.
What was supposed to be a ceiling was an enormous skylight, in the shape of a hexagon. A beryl sky expanded above our heads, cloudless, cold and clear as glass.
The sky. My wild blue heaven.
It had always been my escape. As a pilot, I felt happier, more at home in the air than walking the streets of Sacramento where I lived.
“You must have a lot of questions,” he acknowledged, following my furtive glances.
“Am I a prisoner here?” I blurted out.
“Not at all, “the magistrate assured me in an obliging tone. “You’re free to leave whenever you want.”
How? Sprout wings and bust through the skylight? Where to escape to?
Was that sky above us the sky of California? Was I still on Earth, even? Or somewhere else in Universe, in another galaxy? Maybe another dimension?
Was this guy sitting next to me even human?
“Am I dead?” I asked instead, my voice high-pitched as a choir boy’s.
“Not yet,” he answered with an assuaging smile that failed to reassure me. The large, pointed canines gave him a chilling predatory appearance, softened only by his full lips, curled up in that ambiguous simper.
“What am I doing here, then?”
“We’re here to assess your life, to put it simply,” he answered. “Everybody goes through this routine, Kurt. There’s no need to be nervous. We’re here to establish if you advance to the next level. Or regress.”
I took a few seconds to chew on the new information. I was still in the dark about the method of this assessment, but the idea of regressing sounded ominous. Sinister.
“What level am I currently on?” I asked, my heart beating hard in my collarbones.
“Let’s just say it’s the lowest possible plane one can be on,” he answered.
The lowest? How reassuring.
“How many tries do I get at this?”
“Everybody gets seven chances to advance to a higher plane. A higher spiritual realm.”
“I don’t remember ever seeing you before. Is this my first try?”
The magistrate erupted in a belly laugh, the deafening rumble of a bear in an echoing cave.
His laughing was unnerving. Disparaging, but I was at his mercy in that room. My future – if I still had one – depended on this strange individual.
“It’s very unlikely for you to remember this encounter or your spiritual advisor, Kurt. The point of the evaluation is to focus on yourself and your growth as a spiritual being--
“How many tries do I have left?” I pressed on. My voice had gone up half an octave again.
“All I can advice you is to make the best of this session.”
My last chance? I pressed my sternum to comfort myself. I placed both feet on the floor, as though to anchor myself, but the sight of my feet whacked my retina. With a groan, I hid my feet under the coffee table.
“Let’s not waste any more time, Kurt. We’ve watched a short version of your life. Would you say it’s been a well-lived life? What is your impression?”
According to him, I was on the lowest spiritual plane available to mortals. What could I add to that?
I have loved my life, however. I’ve been a decent, successful guy. A pilot, for God’s sake. At fifty-three years old, I’ve had a good marriage, two kids in college.
“If given a chance to go back and relive certain events, would you do things differently? In your marriage, for example.” the magistrate asked when he saw me struggle to respond.
I had a feeling he’d bring that up. The chink in my armor. The splinter in my wings.
He pressed further when sensing my hesitation. “Are you a truthful man, Kurt?”
“I go around the truth sometimes, to keep the peace. I am not the confrontational type, like Belinda is.”
The magistrate nodded. “Do you love your wife, Kurt?”
I adored Belinda. Oddly, at the moment, I felt estranged from her. I couldn’t even picture her face, after having been her husband for almost twenty years. My heart ached at the sudden betrayal I felt in that bizarre room.
Was this alienation the physical separation between us? Or was it spiritual? Both?
Belinda and I were both catholic. As a busy pilot, I attended mass as often as I could, but Belinda was very devout, almost a fanatic.
We’ve met at the emergency room where she worked as a nurse. My mother had rushed me to the hospital one night after, in a rage, I had mangled my toes.
All my life I’d neglected my toes, but in college I struggled the most to accept them as parts of my body. I let my toenails grow out hideously. I avoided touching them, so I didn’t wash them. I felt vindicated this way, rejecting them like an alien appendage to my feet.
One day, while dressing, I kicked a wall over and over until I cracked my big toenail. It bled for three days, staining my socks and my canvas sneakers. Soon enough, the big toe got infected and swollen like an engorged cock.
My girlfriend at the time got insulted when I refused to take my socks off while she was buck naked in my parents’ bedroom. We were making out when, slyly, she grabbed my sock and pulled it off.
She stared at the red phallus with the bloody, cracked nail and gagged. The other deformed purple toes completed the horror show. She grabbed her clothes and fled to the bathroom, too horrified to scream. Like a small balloon, my penis deflated with a whimper while my big toe ogled me proud, unapologetic.
In the emergency room, I wanted to shrink and drop through the thread of the sheets when the nurse examined my bleeding, mangled toes. She didn’t recoil, but handled the situation with such finesse that a week later I asked her out on a date. We were married in the spring of the next year.
“Of course I love my wife,” I answered, uneasy, gripping the armrests.
“And yet, you’ve been cheating on her for years,“ the magistrate replied calmly in his copper voice.
The statement floated in the sky-high room like a duck feather, before landing, in gentle sways, at my guilty feet. I quickly hid them back under the table.
Anxious, I glanced at the skylight, filling my eyes with the periwinkle sky as a drowning man would fill his lungs with air.
As a pilot, I’ve been surrounded by dozens of beautiful women, dazzled by my uniform and the glamour that came with it. For nine years, I resisted the barrage of compliments and innuendos, subtle and brazen propositions. When the male flight attendants started to follow suit, intrigued, I drew a line.
Belinda and I had a fight one day. As usual, she ended the argument with a razor-sharp point, so later, I broke down and called one of the more persistent seductresses, a young flight attendant from San Francisco. The sloppy sex in a smelly bathroom stall was unremarkable. Still, I regained my wounded manhood that night and every night Belinda won an argument.
Although cocky and gregarious, I avoided conflicts of any kind with Belinda. Unlike me, she sought confrontation, she thrived on it.
Every time she called me a coward, my penis withered to a pitiful jellied weenie, only to awaken, throbbing with vigor and anticipation, in the cockpit or the back of the plane. As long my feet stayed hidden and the palavers were light and playful, my manhood was safe. Roaring in my pants.
It didn’t help, that Belinda, after giving birth to our children, gained weight. I would have rather died than bring up the twenty extra pounds packing her doughy belly and thighs. I ended up averting my eyes when she undressed for bed.
If she noticed, she didn’t let out. She was secure enough in her appearance to cut her greying hair short, wear no makeup, jewelry or perfume. She even stopped shaving her legs and armpits when our lovemaking became awkward and sporadic.
Oftentimes I wondered if she pushed me in other women’s arms on purpose, so she could flatten my manhood later.
“I do love Belinda with all my heart,” I repeated, fixing the magistrate’s eyes. “But not enough to listen to her and learn how I killed her love for me.”
Out of the blue, a thunder rumbled in the sky above the glass.
The remote clattered on the coffee table, the armchairs tottered on the bare hardwood floor. Open-mouthed, I squinted at the gilded thunderbolt hitting the skylight and smashing it in thousands glittering shards. I ducked in my seat, holding my head.
The magistrate remained serene, dignified. He was still smiling when an ear-splitting vortex sucked us both out of our seats and catapulted us into the tranquil sapphire expanse.
I woke up in a small hospital room with cream walls. Through a thin gauze that covered my eyes, I made out a tall man in a black habit with a dog collar. He was standing next to my bed, making the sign of the cross over my body.
Was he giving me the last rites?
Astounded, I recognized the black onyx ring on the priest’s finger. Had I survived the vortex through another dimension only to die in a hospital bed?
I opened my mouth to speak, but my muscles didn’t respond. All I could do was witness everything. And blink.
I made out another person in the room. A woman was sitting on the vacant bed next to mine – facing the door - filling out papers attached to a clipboard. She had light brown shoulder-length hair and wore a red floral dress. The priest placed a comforting hand on the woman’s shoulder and left the room.
Where are you going? Don’t leave me here! I wanted to scream after him. I couldn’t utter a sigh. The machines I was attached to, however, came to life all of a sudden, beeping.
Registering a pulse. A steady heartbeat.
The woman turned her head towards the bed, dumbfounded. My eyes bulged out of their sockets when I recognized Belinda. A glamorous Belinda, with colored, longer hair, soft makeup. She looked slimmer in her red chic dress.
Unperturbed, she turned towards the window. Blinking, brainstorming.
Her coldness froze the blood in my veins. She appeared aghast I had come back to life. Inconvenienced.
As the machines beeped around me, fresh memories swirled in my head. The white single-engine Cessna 172 I rented on weekends. Beautiful Claudia I was training to fly. The cobalt sky, the emerald meadows and cornfields below. Our kiss and banter. The alarms and red buttons flashing. The russet barn coming rapidly into view. The brutal impact, the explosion.
Miraculously, I had survived the crash. Judging by the length of Belinda’s hair, I had been out at least three months.
My wife finished the forms, signed with an elaborate curlicue at the bottom and tossed the clipboard on the bed. She placed the purse on her shoulder, walked up to the head of the bed, her high heels clicking on the linoleum floor.
My heartbeat increased, sending the monitors into a frenzy. She glanced at me, her ice-cold eyes boring a hole into the gauze covering my eyes. I shook my head, imploringly.
She scoffed, leaned over and unplugged the ventilator. Her wedding band was gone.
In the end, just as in our entire twenty-year marriage, she had the last word.
I closed my eyes when she placed her cool index finger on my forehead, dragging it along the bridge of my nose, across my lips, chin. I shivered when it brushed my Adam’s apple, my chest, my sunken abdomen under the white sheet. It went down my left thigh and shinbone. At the ankle, it stopped abruptly and hit the mattress.
My feet were missing.
I laid in bed for the longest time, waiting for life to run out of me, like fine sand through an hourglass. I was at peace at last, grateful for the lull after the whirlwind of events that had shaken my life.
My only regret was dying still at the bottom of the spiritual realm assigned to mortals.
Footsteps on the linoleum broke my rumination. Through the gauze, I made out the black robe and the white beard of the magistrate.
“I forgot my notes,” he chuckled. He grabbed the notebook off the bed next to me. He glanced at the monitors, then at me. In two steps, he reached the head of the bed, placed his head on my chest. Quickly, he plugged the ventilator back in and exhaled.
Gratefully, I took in a good lungful of oxygen and found the energy - and muscle strength - to smile.
“Well, Kurt, congratulations. Believe it or not, you’ve made it to level two, “ he grinned.
He then pressed the alarm button to summon the attending doctor.