I remember the day I first stumbled upon the name ‘William Banting.’ I was fourteen years old, friendless and awkward, and obsessed with poetry. The school library was my haunting ground. One day I was wandering through the back recesses of the library when I found a pamphlet titled Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public. I’m still not entirely sure why my public school had this buried in its depths, but I am forever grateful it did. That was my first day experiencing faith.
Banting: a method of dieting for obesity by avoiding sweets and carbohydrates.
Banting: born 1797, died 1878, an undertaker.
Today is my twenty first birthday. I roll out of bed at 6:30am to do my morning workout, involving running three miles and a mild yoga routine. My breakfast consists of two eggs, fried in coconut oil. I shower quickly and spend a few minutes admiring my figure in the mirror before throwing on my suit, the only outfit I ever wear when leaving my apartment. I will be the most attractive corpse ever.
Before reversing my car, I check the mirror, noting the long eyelashes framing my dark eyes and my plush red lips. I blow a kiss at my reflection and leave for campus.
The degree plan for mortuary science involves a lot of science. My literary heart quailed at the idea of hours of chemistry and biology initially but remained steadfast in its dedication to the profession that saved my life. I’ve taken anatomy, various biology and chemistry classes, a myriad of psychology and law classes, and am now working on the business and ethics aspect of my thanatological education.
My body tingles with adrenaline as I walk to my first class, reveling in the attention on the sway of my hips. As fascinated as I am with death, living is incredibly exciting.
I am called ‘the vampire’ on a regular basis. Honestly, I’m unsure if anyone at this school knows my actual name. It doesn’t matter much to me, I have a mission in mind. The dead don’t care to know their embalmers, anyway. And if things work out as I want them to, I’ll know many people rather intimately without them knowing a thing about me.
It’s always been that way for me, from ghost in middle school to zombie in high school to vampire in college. No one has ever cared to know me as I obsess over the nuances of their fragile lives. I probably know them better than they know themselves.
I plop my bag into the seat next to me and crack open my copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray while I wait for the class to begin.
People start filling in the room, giving me a wide berth. I continue reading in peace.
Someone clears their throat near me. I flip a page.
“Hey.” A male voice. My eyes flicker up and are surprised to see he’s looking directly at me. “Can I sit there?” He gestures at my satchel, draped across the seat to my right.
“Uh…” my voice cracks from misuse, “Yeah, sure.”
He shuffles around the table and plops disgracefully into the empty seat.
“What’re you reading?” I can’t believe he’s still talking to me.
“Oscar Wilde. The Picture of Dorian Gray.”
“Oh, I love Wilde! Well, I love the one play I read by him. The Importance of Being Earnest. I was cracking up the entire time – I think I’ve heard Dorian Gray is much more morbid though. Do you like comedies or tragedies better? I’m definitely a comedy guy.”
Why does this man talk so much. “Uh, I prefer tragedy.”
“You definitely give those vibes,” he laughs, then quickly corrects himself. “In a good way of course! You’re like a sexy goth type. Er, it looks good on you!”
His voice is very loud.
He’s still stuttering to himself when the professor walks in. Gently I close my book and pinch the inside of my wrist to refocus myself. The boy turns to the front of the classroom and doesn’t say a word for the rest of the period.
To my horror, he trails me out of the classroom.
“Hey, what’s your name?” he asks. I ignore him. “I’m really sorry if I came across as weird earlier, you’re just really pretty and I’m new and I was hoping we could be friends?”
I whip around to face him. “Please, I don’t have time for friends.” My voice is a low hiss. “I have to focus on myself and my goal if I want to get anywhere in my short life.” His eyes are a gorgeous shade of blue, and several inches below mine. I blink in surprise. He seemed taller. “I just need to focus,” I whisper before turning to walk away.
The rest of my day progresses without incident. I attend my classes, eat lunch, go home. No one else tries to talk to me. I feed off of the unspoken attention. As it should be.
But part of my brain keeps getting hung up on the color blue, and I can’t help but glance around every time I hear a voice without volume control.
I’ve heard it’s a sort of tradition to drink on your twenty first birthday. When my mom calls me in the evening to wish me a happy birthday she asks if I have any special plans. Her voice always sounds kind of sad when she talks to me, especially when I remind her that I have no friends. We talk about random things for about an hour: I tell her about how gasses affect a corpse during rigor mortis for probably the thousandth time, and she tells me about how empty the house has felt since my younger brother graduated. She’s always been lonely, but with the two of us gone I can tell it’s becoming unbearable. Mom has always supported me: she helped me figure out the healthiest way to diet, she cried with me when I realized I couldn’t be a boy anymore, she listened to my incessant ramblings about death. I love her for it, but she’s neglected herself in her endless giving. I honestly resonate with her loneliness, but generally shove those feelings down in lieu of ambition. Sometimes I wish she could find a distraction too.
She gives me a one-sided cheers with her glass of wine before we hang up. She knows I don’t drink, it would halt my diet, but I appreciate her trying to make me feel included. I change into my pajamas. I meditate for ten minutes, muttering a mantra of capability to myself. I finish reading Dorian Gray. I journal, covering an entire page with sky blue ink. I’m asleep by 10:30.
The next morning starts in much the same way. I go through my routine, leave for class. I make sure to talk to myself in the mirror to be sure I feel sexy as hell. A life of isolation doesn’t have to be one lacking in self-love.
He’s waiting outside the science building when I pull up to campus. Headphones trail from his ears to the phone in his hand, which is bobbing from the motion of his head. His face is very soft and open, and he smiles at everyone that passes by him. I pray to Banting that he’s not waiting for me.
I walk quickly past him when he’s looking at his phone and make it to the door before he calls after me. He jogs to catch up to me and smoothly opens the door for me.
“Look, I want to apologize for yesterday. Really. You looked kinda lonely and I just wanted to talk. I’ll leave you alone if you really want that, but I wanted to apologize first.” His words are rushed, as if he’s afraid I’ll walk away before he finishes speaking.
I take a deep breath. Breathe out. His sandy hair looks so soft. I wonder what it would feel like to touch stubble. Breathe again.
“Fine. You can talk to me, but don’t expect me to be your friend.”
The smile that lights up his face is radiant, and slightly nauseating.
“So what’s your name again?” he asks.
“It’s nice to meet you. My name is Ian.” He smiles again and I wonder if I’ll have a heart attack if my heart keeps palpitating so quickly, even though I’ve never read of such things happening. At least I’m prepared for a beautiful death. I think I might throw up.
Ian’s introduction to my life doesn’t do much to impede my schedule. I make sure of that.
He talks incessantly and seems to have no volume control. He dresses like a bum, and only shaves when his facial hair starts curling over his lips. He’s majoring in biochemistry and is planning to take a premed route to become a doctor, so we have a lot of classes in the same building. Needless to say, when I’m on campus he seems to always be around.
I always feel kind of nauseous when he’s with me. I think it might be because I’m not used to having friends. In middle school I was deemed uncool because I was fat, in high school I was transitioning, and now I’m desensitized to being ignored.
After a few weeks we get into a sort of routine. He waits for me outside the building, always asks me what I’ve been reading. I talk about corpses and theories about dying; and William Banting, of course. Ian seemed a bit concerned when I first mentioned how much Banting has shaped my life, but I think he quickly realized it’s been nothing but a positive obsession. And he agrees that I would be a beautiful corpse.
I know people like him, he seems to have lots of friends, but he never hangs around them the same way he does around me. I’m not entirely sure what to think of it. However, I do thrive off of the extra attention that he brings my way. I get twice as many looks now as I did before Ian started hanging out with me.
I think it’s quite ironic that someone so full of life would like someone so obsessed with death.
Mom seems to think he likes me as more than a friend. I grapple with that concept. He’s friendly with everyone, laughs just as loud with other people, smiles the same vibrant smile at other people… but he does make a concentrated effort to be around me. I know I’m at least physically appealing, but I truly believe my personality is lacking. It died long ago when I dedicated my life to death.
But then he asks me out to eat dinner together. I decline to go out – it’s difficult to eat out with my diet – but blurt out that he should come over to my apartment before I can think. He grins that radiant smile and agrees. Today is Wednesday, he’s coming over Friday.
The next couple days go past in a blur. It’s difficult to focus on my homework and I space out in classes. This is probably why I never made any friends after becoming acquainted with Banting. They take up too much time and energy.
But it’s so hard to not indulge.
And on Friday after class I’m in the middle of making dinner when I hear a knock on my door. That’s never happened before. Part of me wishes it would be the ghost of my idol rather than Ian. William Banting showing up at my door would be so much less confusing.
I’m painfully aware of how much my apartment reflects my ambitions as Ian steps in. He just smiles and hugs me.
“Thank you for inviting me over. I can only guess how hard that was for you.” I think I’m going to puke.
“I’m sorry for the food, it’s probably not what you’re used to…” I think back to meals in the commons at school, him piling pizza and fries and chicken nuggets onto the three plates of food he inevitably eats at every meal.
“Don’t apologize, Vic. I’m sure it’s going to be great, and honestly it’ll definitely be better than all of the shit I usually eat.” We laugh, and I feel the nausea begin to ebb a bit.
I finish up the cooking and he quizzes me on the steps for proper embalming. I ask him how his guitar playing is going, how well he’s managing in his classes. He’s the first person who has ever made me want to talk, to ask more that what I can observe about them.
When we sit down for dinner the evening sky lights up his face. I’m pretty positive that the sky is in his eyes and the sun in his skin.
It briefly occurs to me that the volume of his voice might bother my neighbors, but the thoughts quickly leave when he starts speaking again. I grapple a bit with the idea of asking him to stay beyond dinner. I’ve begun to realize the nausea I feel around him is a good thing, a thing that comes from being around living people that you like and who like you. I stutter that he should stay and watch a movie with me. He readily agrees.
We decide to watch Sweeney Todd, which is one of my all-time favorite movies. He didn’t believe me when I told him that there was such a thing as a horror musical.
As Helena Bonham-Carter serenades Johnny Depp about living their lives by the sea, Ian suddenly turns to me.
“Can I kiss you?” His voice is barely a whisper, but his eye contact is firm.
Without thinking, I nod.
Physical contact is so nice. Kissing is so nice. And his stubble only slightly tickles. My body is warm, alive. It’s like he’s giving some of the live that radiates from his directly to me, resurrecting me from my abode among the dead.
I forgot what it felt like to feel alive. It’s so overwhelming that I think I might actually die. But I feel like if I did die, there would be more than just my mom at my funeral.