The Best 100 Seconds of Your Life
I live in an apartment farm where the windows in adjacent buildings meet at uncomfortably even angles. If the shades are up, and the lights are on, you can see just about everything happening inside. Sometimes, late at night, I’ll wake for a glass of water from the sink and notice my neighbor at his kitchen table in the unit across from me. The man is balding and middle aged. He usually wears a cream-colored robe or some faded shade of red. He always has a glass of milk at the ready, joined occasionally by a fat cigar, readily aimed at a crack in the panel windows. His horn-rimmed glasses and neat five o’clock shadow are about as unremarkable as any other working Joe this side of the New York / New Jersey state line. And yet something about him always intrigued me.
We didn’t speak. Obviously, with the distance, I don’t think that would even be possible if we tried. But sometimes we’d nod. Sometimes, we’d meet at opposing kitchen tables, cigars in hand, cold glass of milk at the ready. Sometimes, when you’re feeling lonely, it’s nice to see someone else is feeling lonely, too.
But one night, my midnight companion gestured for me to join him.
I didn’t really know what to do about it. My instincts told me to get to bed. My daughter only just managed to fall asleep. My wife needed to get up early. But the wave was friendly, and welcoming, and warm. There was no malice behind it. He didn’t look annoyed by my staring. He just looked like he wanted to talk. I thought about the prospect for a couple minutes. I couldn’t get the image of him sitting alone out of my head. I checked on the baby, kissed Emily good night, and gathered a bathrobe of my own. Then I stumbled down the stairs, out the atrium doors, and into the shivering cold autumn air.
I found my new friend waiting in the lobby of his adjacent building. It felt odd seeing him up close. He looked shorter than I imagined. Thinner, maybe. His bespectacled stare sent uncomfortable shivers up my spine. His dark, watery eyes had a way of locking onto their target. He waved me forward past the security guard, and I followed him wordlessly into the elevator. We waited in awkward silence for a moment before he pressed the button for five. Same as mine.
“Cold out there,” I muttered. “Thought it might heat up over the weekend.”
The man smiled wanly in agreement. The elevator doors opened wide. He stepped forward as the cream robe sashayed behind him. I hesitated.
“Relax, kid.” The man chuckled. “The guard saw you come in. Plus, you’ve got about a foot on me. I think you’ll make it out of here alive.”
“Why did you want me to come over?” I asked. “I hope you didn’t mind…”
“No. Looked like you wanted someone to talk to. Maybe I do, too.”
“Either you’ve got great vision, or I’m just that transparent.”
Another sly smile.
“Little bit of both. My name is Brandon. And you?”
“And now we know each other. We’re not strangers anymore. So how about it, Mike, one sleepless dad to another?”
I stepped out from behind the wide metal doors.
“You got whiskey for that milk?”
I stepped out of the elevator as my counterpart turned on his heel. I bounded down the hall to keep up. Some people just move faster than others. The halls in the building were well lit and uniquely decorated with floral landscape paintings and glass vases that looked as though they held nothing inside. A scrubbed-up nurse walked past just toward the end. Brandon gave her a courteous nod. He fumbled for his keys before the door to his apartment opened.
It was hard not to gasp.
I was immediately greeted by the very essence of luxury. In the dining room, a magnificent chandelier dripped down from the ceiling to meet a luxurious oak table. In the den, Persian rugs lined at incessantly perfect right angles to cover scratch-free wood floors. Beautiful china was encased behind spotless stained glass. A massive seventy-inch LCD TV sat perched on the wall in between various gold-and-silver-shaded baubles and picture frames. The place looked like the Ritz got shoved inside a tiny two-bedroom space.
“Let’s see about that Caucasian, Jackie,” Brandon joked over his shoulder whilst heading for the liquor cabinet. “Big Lebowski. What a film. I’ve been hooked on the things ever since. I assume you want yours on the rocks?”
Brandon returned with a speckled glass and a pair of large cigars. He set us up at the kitchen table before fussing through the cabinets for a pack of matches. After a moment, he grabbed a seat and lit his own in a perfect circular motion.
“Aim for the window.”
I nodded and went to work on my own.
“So how can I help you, Brandon?”
“A woman named Melissa came into my clinic today,” he started.
“You’re a doctor?”
He nodded solemnly.
“You see…Melissa lost her husband and young son in a car accident a few months back.”
“Awful,” I mumbled. “Must be terrible dealing with that sort of thing every day.”
Brandon nodded and offered a token smile before taking a generous swig of his drink.
“She comes to Valley General for checkups, nothing more,” he murmured through a cloud of smoke. “The accident severed her spine. She will never walk again. But we still need to check the dressing, right, and other various injuries for signs of infection. Our job is to make sure Melissa’s horrifying ‘situation’ does not get worse. That’s all.”
“I can’t imagine staying positive,” I added. “Sounds exhausting.”
“That’s the thing. You don’t.”
I was confused.
“Well, don’t you have to?” I asked. “As a doctor, I mean, isn’t part of the goal to keep your patients feeling positive?”
“You can wear a mask,” he murmured. “One of those perky masks that say all the right things. You know…be happy. Make yourself happy. Life will get better. The night is always darkest just before the dawn. You’ve read all the fortune cookies. You’ve heard the thousand cliches and adages and parables and shitty pop songs on the radio extolling people to be their best little selves even when the sky is raining down shit on the only things that matter.”
Brandon coughed through his cigar and chuckled in disgust.
“So, you say stuff like that.”
I puffed my cigar.
“Are you one of those nihilists?” I joked. “Like in the film…”
“I’m a realist,” he snapped angrily. “Real enough to know that shit like talk therapy would not work with Melissa.”
“I’m sorry. A dumb joke. What did you say to her?”
Brandon waved a hand as if to tell me it was all right.
“We keep it to the medicine. You know? Don’t let the stitches get wet. Make sure to take the right pain pills at the right times.”
I coughed on some smoke.
“You know—‘Do you have a caretaker?’ If you don’t have a caretaker assigned, the state can provide one for you. Shit like that helps to avoid the deeper psychological questions. Am I dying? Is life over? Why am I still here? Those types are best left for the shrinks.”
I considered his comments for a second.
“Empathy is a dangerous thing, my friend. No one person can be expected to hold all of the world’s grief. Not even a doctor. There’s just too much of it to go around.”
Brandon took another gulp of liquid courage.
“But this morning, my patient…Melissa tricked me.”
“We were talking about dreams. Vivid dreams can be an unfortunate side effect of concussions, unfortunately, so I needed to find a way to distinguish what is vivid and what is ordinary, in her case. I asked for details about the dreams.”
“Melissa told me she that dreamed about her son. That he was stuck inside a wall of water and she could not reach him.”
“Sounds pretty vivid.”
“Maybe. I thought we needed a second opinion. Likely a psych follow-up. I told her as much. She didn’t take it well.”
“How not well?”
“She took a fork and stuck it into an open electrical outlet.”
“Never seen anything like it in twenty years. The current from the wall slipped through the fork and into her already broken body. Melissa’s heart stopped for exactly one hundred seconds before we were able to get a crash cart into the room and revive her.”
“Yeah. I lost it for a bit. The mask slipped, so to speak. I had seen and treated this woman for months. I felt like I knew her. I knew her dreams, even, and I felt like maybe…maybe the psych and the medicine and everything else had really helped her turn a corner. You know? She talked about dating and having a sex life again. She talked about starting over. All of that work evaporated, in my eyes, the moment she decided to kill herself.”
“So, what did you do?”
“I broke a thousand protocols. I followed Melissa’s case through to the emergency room and into recovery. Later during the day, she regained consciousness, and I lied to her on-call, just to sneak in and see her.”
Brandon took a long drag of his cigar.
“I wanted to shake her. I wanted to yell and scream and tell her what an idiot she was for wasting my time, and her family’s time, and her time. I wanted to tell her there is nothing after this, and if there was, it sure as hell wouldn’t be any better than what we got now. She lied to me. She lied to everyone. I was furious.”
Brandon got up to make another drink.
“I sense a ‘but’ coming.”
“But when I went to see Melissa…she was happy. That is the only way I can describe it.”
“She just sat there, in this hospital bed, covered in wires and IV lines head to toe, burn marks everywhere, looking like a fucking horror show, with this big, dumb grin on her face.
“She told me she just had the best one hundred seconds of her life.”
I laughed. Brandon didn’t. He just stirred his cocktail and stared at me.
“Melissa told me that she saw her husband. She saw her son, too. They were playing on this beautiful white beach covered with pebbles in front of a massive blue ocean. Her little boy always loved to ride this fancy red boogie board through the waves. She could see the kid clear as day, out in the surf, and that every single wave would always be just the right height to bring him safely back to shore. He just looked so happy that…Melissa felt at peace.”
Brandon sniffled a bit.
“She spoke to her husband as well. He was at the beach, too. He forgave her for everything. He knew his death was an accident. An honest accident. Nobody’s fault. He knew they would all be together again. She just had to wait a little while.”
“And all of those aching feelings of guilt, misery, and all that heartache that she kept locked up inside her gut melted away as easily as those perfectly sized waves pushing up against the sand.”
“The best one hundred seconds of her life.”
I considered the story along with the last drops of my drink and the stub of a cigar burning its way toward my fingertips. Brandon got up to stir a third drink. Something didn’t seem right. Something still seemed missing.
“But…why did Melissa try to kill herself at a hospital? Didn’t she know it wouldn’t work?”
Brandon looked longingly toward a picture frame resting up against the coffee maker. A younger man sat perched with a little girl hanging off his lap. He dipped his fingers into a full glass and smiled sadly. Then he swirled his whole hand around slowly.
“Maybe she didn’t want to die.”
“How do you mean?”
He considered that for a moment.
“Maybe she just wanted to visit for a little while.”
He stopped stirring and looked at me with hopeful blue eyes.
“Hey, kid, you have your cell phone, don’t you?”
I told him that I did.
“And you saw the nurse next door?”
The next few moments moved faster than any in my life. I didn’t anticipate it. I didn’t see Brandon’s hand reach out for the outlet. I didn’t stop him before sparks flew through the air. Brandon stayed put in that position, arm welded to the outlet, for what much have been a full minute. Bolts of white-hot electricity vibrated up and down his soaked hand. I can’t shake the picture of it from my head. I pulled out my phone and dialed emergency services as fast as possible.
Police and EMS arrived in record time. The nurse ran right over. We were still too late. We were all too late. Dr. Brandon Smart’s heart stopped for two hundred and two seconds. He died there on the kitchen floor.
Sometimes I hope he got to see his beach. Just one last time. Maybe his daughter would be there. Maybe he could join her in the waves.
And then sometimes I still see his light on at night.