DO NOT GO GENTLE
FROM THE DIARIES OF LENNY ABRAMOV
Today I've made a major decision: I am never going to die.
Others will die around me. They will be nullified. Nothing of their personality will remain. The light switch will be turned off. Their lives, their entirety, will be marked by glossy marble headstones bearing false summations ("her star shone brightly," "never to be forgotten," "he liked jazz"), and then these too will be lost in a coastal flood or get hacked to pieces by some genetically modified future-turkey.
Don't let them tell you life's a journey. A journey is when you end up somewhere. When I take the number 6 train to see my social worker, that's a journey. When I beg the pilot of this rickety UnitedContinentalDeltamerican plane currently trembling its way across the Atlantic to turn around and head straight back to Rome and into Eunice Park's fickle arms, that's a journey.
But wait. There's more, isn't there? There's our legacy. We don't die because our progeny lives on! The ritual passing of the DNA, Mama's corkscrew curls, his granddaddy's lower lip, ah buh-lieve thuh chil'ren ah our future. I'm quoting here from "The Greatest Love of All," by 1980s pop diva Whitney Houston, track nine of her eponymous first LP.
Utter nonsense. The children are the future only in the most narrow, transitive sense. They are the future until they too perish. The song's next line, "Teach them well and let them lead the way," encourages an adult's relinquishing of selfhood in favor of future generations. The phrase "I live for my kids," for example, is tantamount to admitting that one will be dead shortly and that one's life, for all practical purposes, is already over. "I'm gradually dying for my kids" would be more accurate.
But what ah our chil'ren? Lovely and fresh in their youth; blind to mortality; rolling around, Eunice Park-like, in the tall grass with their alabaster legs; fawns, sweet fawns, all of them, gleaming in their dreamy plasticity, at one with the outwardly simple nature of their world.
And then, a brief almost-century later: drooling on some poor Mexican nursemaid in an Arizona hospice.
Nullified. Did you know that each peaceful, natural death at age eighty-one is a tragedy without compare? Every day people, individuals- Americans, if that makes it more urgent for you-fall facedown on the battlefield, never to get up again. Never to exist again. These are complex personalities, their cerebral cortexes shimmering with floating worlds, universes that would have floored our sheepherding, fig-eating, analog ancestors. These folks are minor deities, vessels of love, life-givers, unsung geniuses, gods of the forge getting up at six-fifteen in the morning to fire up the coffeemaker, mouthing silent prayers that they will live to see the next day and the one after that and then Sarah's graduation and then . . .
But not me, dear diary. Lucky diary. Undeserving diary. From this day forward you will travel on the greatest adventure yet undertaken by a nervous, average man sixty-nine inches in height, 160 pounds in heft, with a slightly dangerous body mass index of 23.9. Why "from this day forward"? Because yesterday I met Eunice Park, and she will sustain me through forever. Take a long look at me, diary. What do you see? A slight man with a gray, sunken battleship of a face, curious wet eyes, a giant gleaming forehead on which a dozen cavemen could have painted something nice, a sickle of a nose perched atop a tiny puckered mouth, and from the back, a growing bald spot whose shape perfectly replicates the great state of Ohio, with its capital city, Columbus, marked by a deep-brown mole. Slight. Slightness is my curse in every sense. A so-so body in a world where only an incredible one will do. A body at the chronological age of thirty-nine already racked with too much LDL cholesterol, too much ACTH hormone, too much of everything that dooms the heart, sunders the liver, explodes all hope. A week ago, before Eunice gave me reason to live, you wouldn't have noticed me, diary. A week ago, I did not exist. A week ago, at a restaurant in Turin, I approached a potential client, a classically attractive High Net Worth Individual. He looked up from his wintry bollito misto, looked right past me, looked back down at the boiled lovemaking of his seven meats and seven vegetable sauces, looked back up, looked right past me again-it is clear that for a member of upper society to even remotely notice me I must first fire a flaming arrow into a dancing moose or be kicked in the testicles by a head of state.
And yet Lenny Abramov, your humble diarist, your small nonentity, will live forever. The technology is almost here. As the Life Lovers Outreach Coordinator (Grade G) of the Post-Human Ser?vices division of the Staatling-Wapachung Corporation, I will be the first to partake of it. I just have to be good and I have to believe in myself. I just have to stay off the trans fats and the hooch. I just have to drink plenty of green tea and alkalinized water and submit my genome to the right people. I will need to re-grow my melting liver, replace the entire circulatory system with "smart blood," and find someplace safe and warm (but not too warm) to while away the angry seasons and the holocausts. And when the earth expires, as it surely must, I will leave it for a new earth, greener still but with fewer allergens; and in the flowering of my own intelligence some 1032 years hence, when our universe decides to fold in on itself, my personality will jump through a black hole and surf into a dimension of unthinkable wonders, where the things that sustained me on Earth 1.0-tortelli lucchese, pistachio ice cream, the early works of the Velvet Underground, smooth, tanned skin pulled over the soft Baroque architecture of twentysomething buttocks-will seem as laughable and infantile as building blocks, baby formula, a game of "Simon says do this."
That's right: I am never going to die, caro diario. Never, never, never, never. And you can go to hell for doubting me.
Yesterday was my last day in Rome. Got up around eleven, caffè macchiato at the bar that has the best honey brioche, the neighbor's ten-year-old anti-American kid screaming at me from his window, "No global! No way!," warm cotton towel of guilt around my neck for not getting any last-minute work done, my äppärät buzzing with contacts, data, pictures, projections, maps, incomes, sound, fury. Yet another day of early-summer wandering, the streets in charge of my destiny, holding me in their oven-warm eternal embrace.
Ended up where I always end up. By the single most beautiful building in Europe. The Pantheon. The rotunda's ideal proportions; the weight of the dome lifted above one's shoulders, suspended in air by icy mathematic precision; the oculus letting in the rain and the searing Roman sunlight; the coolness and shade that nonetheless prevail. Nothing can diminish the Pantheon! Not the gaudy religious makeover (it is officially a church). Not the inflated, down-to-their-last-euro Americans seeking fat shelter beneath the portico. Not the modern-day Italians fighting and cajoling outside, boys trying to stick it inside girls, mopeds humming beneath hairy legs, multi-generational families bursting with pimply life. No, this is the most glorious grave marker to a race of men ever built. When I outlive the earth and depart from its familiar womb, I will take the memory of this building with me. I will encode it with zeros and ones and broadcast it across the universe. See what primitive man has wrought! Witness his first hankerings for immortality, his discipline, his selflessness.
My last Roman day. I had my macchiato. I bought some expensive deodorant, perhaps anticipating love. I took a three-hour, slightly masturbatory nap in the ridiculous glow of my sun-strangled apartment. And then, at a party thrown by my friend Fabrizia, I met
Wait, no. That's not exactly true. This chronology isn't right. I'm lying to you, diary. It's only page five and I'm already a liar. Something terrible happened before Fabrizia's party. So terrible I don't want to write about it, because I want you to be a positive diary.
I went to the U.S. Embassy.
It wasn't my idea to go. A friend of mine, Sandi, told me that if you spend over 250 days abroad and don't register for Welcome Back, Pa'dner, the official United States Citizen Re-Entry Program, they can bust you for sedition right at JFK, send you to a "secure screening facility" Upstate, whatever that is.
Now, Sandi knows everything-he works in fashion-so I decided to take his vividly expressed, highly caffeinated advice and headed for Via Veneto, where our nation's creamy palazzo of an embassy luxuriates behind a recently built moat. Not for much longer, I should say. According to Sandi, the strapped State Department just sold the whole thing to StatoilHydro, the Norwegian state oil company, and by the time I got to Via Veneto the enormous compound's trees and shrubbery were already being coaxed into tall, agnostic shapes to please their new owners. Armored moving vans ringed the perimeter, and the sound of massive document-shredding could be divined from within.
The consular line for the visa section was nearly empty. Only a few of the saddest, most destitute Albanians still wanted to emigrate to the States, and that lonely number was further discouraged by a poster showing a plucky little otter in a sombrero trying to jump onto a crammed dinghy under the tagline "The Boat Is Full, Amigo."
Inside an improvised security cage, an older man behind Plexiglas shouted at me incomprehensibly while I waved my passport at him. A competent Filipina, indispensable in these parts, finally materialized and waved me down a cluttered hallway to a mock-up of a faded public- high-school classroom decked out in the Welcome Back, Pa'dner, motif. The Mexican otter from the "Boat Is Full" campaign was here Americanized (sombrero replaced by red-white-and-blue bandana worn around his hirsute little neck), then perched upon a goofy-looking horse, the two of them galloping toward a fiercely rising and presumably Asian sun.
A half-dozen of my fellow citizens were seated behind their chewed-up desks, mumbling lowly into their äppäräti. There was an earplug lying slug-dead on an empty chair, and a sign reading insert earplug in ear, place your äppärät on desk, and disable all security settings. I did as I was told. An electronic version of John Cougar Mellencamp's "Pink Houses" ("Ain't that America, somethin' to see, baby!") twanged in my ear, and then a pixelated version of the plucky otter shuffled onto my äppärät screen, carrying on his back the letters ARA, which dissolved into the shimmering legend: American Restoration Authority.
The otter stood up on his hind legs, and made a show of dusting himself off. "Hi there, pa'dner!" he said, his electronic voice dripping with adorable carnivalesque. "My name is Jeffrey Otter and I bet we're going to be friends!"
Feelings of loss and aloneness overwhelmed me. "Hi," I said. "Hi, Jeffrey."
"Hi there, yourself!" the otter said. "Now I'm going to ask you some friendly questions for statistical purposes only. If you don't want to answer a question, just say, 'I don't want to answer this question.' Remember, I'm here to help you! Okay, then. Let's start simple. What's your name and Social Security Number?"
I looked around. People were urgently whispering things to their otters. "Leonard or Lenny Abramov," I murmured, followed by my Social Security.
"Hi, Leonard or Lenny Abramov, 205-32-8714. On behalf of the American Restoration Authority, I would love to welcome you back to the new United States of America. Look out, world! There's no stoppin' us now!" A bar from the McFadden and Whitehead disco hit "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now" played loudly in my ear. "Now tell me, Lenny. What made you leave our country? Work or pleasure?"
"Work," I said.
"And what do you do, Leonard or Lenny Abramov?"
"Um, Indefinite Life Extension."
"You said 'effeminate life invention.' Is that right?"
"Indefinite Life Extension," I said.
"What's your Credit ranking, Leonard or Lenny, out of a total score of sixteen hundred?"
"Fifteen hundred twenty."
"That's pretty neat. You must really know how to pinch those pennies. You have money in the bank, you work in 'effeminate life invention.' Now I just have to ask, are you a member of the Bipartisan Party? And if so, would you like to receive our new weekly äppärät stream, 'Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now!'? It's got all sorts of great tips on readjusting to life in these United States and getting the most bang for your buck."
"I'm not a Bipartisan, but, yes, I would like to get your stream," I said, trying to be conciliatory.
"Okey-dokey! You're on our list. Say, Leonard or Lenny, did you meet any nice foreign people during your stay abroad?"
"Yes," I said.
"What kind of people?"
"You said 'Somalians.' "
"Some Italians," I said.
"You said 'Somalians,' " the otter insisted. "You know Americans get lonely abroad. Happens all the time! That's why I never leave the brook where I was born. What's the point? Tell me, for statistical purposes, did you have any intimate physical relationships with any non-Americans during your stay?"
I stared hard at the otter, my hands shaking beneath the desk. Did everyone get this question? I didn't want to end up in an Upstate "secure screening facility" simply because I had crawled on top of Fabrizia and tried to submerge my feelings of loneliness and inferiority inside her. "Yes," I said. "Just one girl. A couple of times we did it."
"And what was this non-American's full name? Last name first, please."
I could hear one fellow sitting several desks in front of me, his square Anglo face hidden partially by a thick mane, breathing Italian names into his äppärät.
"I'm still waiting for that name, Leonard or Lenny," said the otter.
"DeSalva, Fabrizia," I whispered.
"You said 'DeSalva-' " But just then the otter froze in mid-name, and my äppärät began to produce its "heavy thinking" noises, a wheel desperately spinning inside its hard plastic shell, its ancient circuitry completely overtaxed by the otter and his antics. The words error code it/fc-gs/flag appeared on the screen. I got up went back to the security cage out front. "Excuse me," I said, leaning into the mouth hole. "My äppärät froze. The otter stopped speaking to me. Could you send over that nice Filipina woman?"
The old creature manning this post crackled at me incomprehensibly, the lapels of his shirt trembling with stars and stripes. I made out the words "wait" and "service representative."
An hour passed in bureaucratic metronome. Movers carried out a man- sized golden statue of our nation's E Pluribus Unim eagle and a dining table missing three legs. Eventually an older white woman in enormous orthodontic shoes clacked her way down the hall. She had a magnificent tripartite nose, more Roman than any proboscis ever grown along the banks of the Tiber, and the kind of pinkish oversized glasses I associate with kindness and progressive mental health. Thin lips quivered from daily contact with life, and her earlobes bore silver loops a size too large.
In appearance and mien she reminded me of Nettie Fine, a woman whom I hadn't seen since high-school graduation. She was the first person to greet my parents at the airport after they had winged their way from Moscow to the United States four decades ago in search of dollars and God. She was their young American mama, their latkes-bearing synagogue volunteer, arranger of English lessons, bequeather of spare furniture. In fact, Nettie's husband had worked in D.C. at the State Department. In further fact, before I left for Rome my mother had told me he was stationed in a certain European capital. . . .
"Mrs. Fine?" I said. "Are you Nettie Fine, ma'am?"