by Vic Fortezza
Matthew dreamed he was floating, no longer burdened by aged, arthritic limbs and joints. Although he was amongst clouds, unable to see the heavens or earth, he was unafraid, smiling. Here, drifting like a kite that had broken from its string, he did not feel lonely, isolated though he was. He was like a child at play, chuckling. He lent no resistance, allowing the mysterious force that had seized him to take him wherever it wished. It was infinitely better than what he'd had. In fact, he hoped he would never awaken.
He spied a huge golden gate in the distance. His pace slowed. Soon he was hanging suspended in the air. He gazed about, wondering how this was possible. He was unable to see beyond the gate, as the clouds were thick, a vivid, snowy white.
"Am I dead?" he mused aloud.
"Yes," a deep, solemn voice replied.
He started. He was unable to spot the speaker. Unsure of himself, he remained silent.
"Are you afraid, Matthew?"
He weighed his response. "Of death, no." His tone was measured, reverent. "It was time. I'd outlived my usefulness long ago. Luckily, I never became a burden to anyone but myself. I've always been lucky, matter of fact. I even died in my sleep, didn't I? I'm not sure I deserved that."
"Of what are you afraid, then?"
"Judgement. I'd come to believe there was nothing beyond the life of the body. It seemed illogical to believe otherwise, and I was probably too determined to live logically."
"Why are you afraid of judgement? Didn't you exercise it yourself as a mortal?"
"I guess that's precisely why," he said glumly. "I was often wrong."
"And now the shoe's on the other foot?"
He nodded. "I was also taught, long ago, that those who did not believe would be condemned."
"Even those who lived righteously?"
Matthew hesitated. "I'm afraid I fail on both counts."
"You have many sins?"
"Too many to mention, most of them petty, though, but I'll leave that to you to judge."
"No," said Matthew, aghast.
"No, though I did get into some scrapes in my youth. I don't recall having instigated any, though, but I still should've walked away from them."
"Yes," said Matthew despondently, "and cheating, although I think I lived pretty honorably in these regards. Friends were always poking fun at me for being so straight."
"No!" He was appalled, then thought a moment. "I did behave despicably with that one girl spring semester, though. I can't, for the life of me, remember her name, which, I suppose, is a sin in itself. Nothing came of it, though. In fact, it may've prevented me from ever behaving like that again. I couldn't even look at her after that, even though nothing happened. I could never force or even cajole a girl into having sex. I always wanted to be wanted. I guess that's why Ididn't have many lovers. It was so demeaning, so futile to press for sex. It was always a problem for me. In the beginning I was afraid that even consensual pre-marital sex was wrong. That kept me from being aggressive with Kelly or Paula, whom I'm sure I could've had." He paused, puzzled. "Then why was I so aggressive with that other girl, who I met during that same span? Was it because I somehow knew she wouldn't give in?" He mulled the thought. "Nah. I know why - I would've been able to walk away from her without qualm. Danny said she looked like a slut. I must've been in a phase when I thought it was okay to have sex with sluts, although it turned out she wasn't one. I was afraid Kelly or Paula would pull me into a relationship I was nowhere ready for. Wait - that's not exactly right, either. They wouldn't've pulled. I'm the one who was vulnerable because I was really attracted to them and, at the time, I believed a man should marry a girl he loved whom he'd had sex with. Funny, I'd been thinking about this a lot lately. I'm amazed I remember it all so clearly. Then again, maybe the perceptions've warped over time. Ever see a movie scene you think you know by rote, and discover its significantly different than how you remembered it? Maybe none of what I told you is accurate." He fell silent, pensive. "Maybe I've just taken these thoughts into my dreams."
"This is not a dream."
Matthew noted that the tone of the voice had not once varied from impartiality.
"Why would you want to hear any of this? My life was so ordinary."
"Mortals never cease to fascinate me."
"By the way, did that girl recover from the humiliation?"
"I take that as a 'no.'"
"It is a mystery with which you must live."
Mathhew reflected a moment. "A sort of penance?" It made sense. "There's no chance I'll run into her? I'd like to apologize."
"You said nothing happened."
"Nothing did. I just hated that I acted like a cad. Maybe she forgot about it in time. So many painful things happen to us along the way. That was the only time I ever acted like that - unless you count Marian, my Ecuadorian entchantress."
"What did you do to her?"
"Nothing. She wouldn't let me. And I wouldn't press it because she was so young. I should've never gone out with her in the first place. I was thirty, she was eighteen. She forced the issue, though."
"What went wrong?"
"Since she'd come on to me so strongly, I wanted to have sex on our first date. She wanted to get to know me better. We'd worked so closely for months, sometimes under hectic circumstances - and she claimed she didn't know me! To spite her I never asked her out again. What a dolt. I completely lost sight of the fact that she was a teenager, sexual revolution or not. I let ego rob me of what might've been a fun relationship. I couldn't believe it - I was finally convinced that consexual sex was okay - and she rejected me! Why couldn't I've gotten there sooner when I'd crossed paths with Michelle? No, I had to be noble and not give in to a student, when other teachers and even janitors were indulging. And, of course, I met Rosalita when I was forty and wouldn't give in, even though it almost killed me to stay away from her. Seven years later a girl sat next to me on a train. My head was buried in the newspaper. When I took off my reading glasses I couldn't believe how much it looked like her, even though the hair was dyed black and she was a lot slimmer, which made her seem taller. It would've been just like her to not say anything. She had that kind of fiery pride. Of course I didn't say anything. All I had to do to solve the mystery was whisper: 'Is it you?' I'd've known that voice anywhere. But the words stuck in my throat. I tossed and turned for days. I don't suppose you could tell...."
All he heard was the hiss of the atmosphere. It reminded him of the time he skydived.
"No, of course not. I must suffer the penance of having been a fool, in death as in life. I can't really kick, though. God gave me plenty of chances. Three dynamite eighteen-year-olds wanted me - girls ten to twenty-two years younger than me! I'd've never believed it. Guys were always teasing me about my looks. And there were other women too, ones I wasn't attracted to, who gave me the eye. I couldn't allow myself to settle for someone I wasn't nuts about, though. God put women of all colors and backgrounds in my path, and I didn't pick one."
He realized the tangent he'd taken. "Am I boring you? You probably know all of this, anyway."
"I always like to see what mortals try to hide. I want to hear of any sin you think you committed."
"This's gonna sound conceited, but I think I sinned a lot more against myself than others, if you don't count all the terrible things I said to my parents while I was growing up."
"We granted an exemption against that long ago, otherwise no one would qualify. What is your greatest sin?"
"That's easy, though you may not agree. I never married, though I wanted to desperately. I never had kids, though I love them. I lived selfishly, therefore. This guy at work drew a cariacature about me, a take-off on a movie line: 'No wife, no kids.' I didn't let on how much it bothered me, probably because I felt I deserved it. It was the truth. A lot of people wondered about me. Some thought I was gay. I couldn't blame them."
"Why didn't you marry?"
"It seemed futile to believe two people could co-habitate for a lifetime and still be happy. Is there a greater sin than to give in to such futility? Nothing good would ever happen. Sometimes I'd be thinking about a particular girl and bam! - there she'd be walking toward me, as if God'd put her there. I might get off a 'Hi,' but that'd be it, especially once I was in my forties. And then I'd wonder if God was ticked at me, if He thought I was hopeless. Did He?"
"Whom would you have liked to marry?"
Matthew was tongue-tied momentarily, his question having been ignored. "That's easy, too. I couldn't've married Lynn. She was in my life twenty years before I was thinking straight, if it could be said I ever got to thinking straight. She doesn't haunt me. She's a fond memory. Laura's a painful one. Except for the twenty years between us, I think we were a perfect match. I ate my heart out whenever she made an overture. I'd tell myself: 'Leave Laura alone.' I couldn't understand why she wanted me. She couldn't've known how old I was. Maybe she felt sorry for me because of all those cariacatures. Most of them were really funny. I hung a couple on the 'fridge. I wanted to tell her how much I appreciated the attention, and then tell her my age, but I couldn't get the words out."
"Didn't you owe her that courtesy, at least?"
"Of course, but I suspect I'd hoped she'd stay alone, too. Does that make any sense? I was bitter about being too old for such a gem and I wanted her to suffer for it. She was the type you'd want to bear your children, the type you'd be thrilled to introduce to your mom."
"May-December marriages have been known to work occasionally."
"I know," said Matthew, peeved at himself. "I just didn't want her to risk getting stuck with a crotchety old goat, or have her end up taking care of an invalid."
"Being noble again?"
He scoffed. "Chicken, more like it. Of course, I never became crotchety or an invalid. I lacked faith. That about sums up why I was alone, doesn't it?"
"What happened to her?"
Matthew slumped. "As if you don't know. I guess this is part of the penance. She gave in to a guy at work who was sweet on her, good kid, handsome, hard-worker. I died a little bit inside when her first pregnancy started to show, and then whenever she visited with her kids. I was never quite the same after that. Was she the one who was meant for me? Is there such a thing?"
"There was no one else?"
He paused, reflecting, adjusting to the turn in conversation. "A little later on there was Marcia, who lived in my building. I figure she was in her mid-thirties. Damn," he said with disbelief, "still ten years younger than me. She was attractive, always impeccably dressed. It just didn't feel right, though. I didn't feel what I felt when I looked at Laur'. She seemed nice, though."
"Did it occur to you that love might evolve?"
"Yes," said Mathew, pained. "I guess Laura was a safer fantasy because it didn't have a snowball's...."
He was struck dumb by the irony of the metaphor.
"Go on," said the voice.
"A relationship with Marcia was possible, but I imagined her becoming obese and unattractive, and it turned me off. I know that's wrong, but it's the truth. I wondered why she was always alone."
"Didn't others wonder the same about you?"
Matthew did not respond.
"You should've asked her."
"Right," said Matthew, contrite. "What happened to her? Is she still alive?"
"Do you have the right to know?"
He despaired, the answer obvious. "There seems to be a recurring theme here."
Silence fell. Matthew waited, worrying, imagining entries were being entered in a huge log.
"Is that all, then?" said the voice.
"Pretty pathetic, huh? All those years and my only regrets are about women, outside of waiting until my mid-thrities to invest in the stock market. Funny, I seem to've finally lost all the bitterness toward the two women I really pursued. Those attractions were chiefly physical, I know, but I was madly in love with those girls and wasted years making myself sick over them. God, I'd love to see Rita." He chuckled sorrowfully to himself. "Amazing how it always comes back to her. I guess I'll always blame her for not helping rid me of my sexual inhibitions. Who knows, she may've corrupted me instead, like she feared she would." He froze, seized by fear. "She's not....? You don't really get sent there for promiscuity, do you?"
There was no reply.
"Damn, that's cold. What harm would it do to tell me? I was crazy about her, literally and figuratively. I don't think a day passed since I first met her that she didn't cross my mind." He was struck by a terrifying realization - that he would soon be joining her below. "Then again, maybe I'll find her. As far as I'm concerned, I'm just as guilty as she was, only at the opposite end of the spectrum."
"You'd follow her to hell?" The voice remained non-judgemental. "Do you hope to finally have sex with her there?"
He was stung, the truth mocking him. "Wow," he mused, "dead and still stupid over women. How appropriate. Is she there, then?"
"This is about you, Matthew, not her."
"I'm ready," he said testily, frustrated with the process. "Do with me what you will."
"You believe you're being treated unfairly?"
"C'mon. This's a joke. 'Listen up everybody: we have good news and we have bad news - there's an afterlife, but there're still no answers to life's myriad mysteies.' What's the point, then? There may as well not be an afterlife. You...."
His voice trailed off into unintelligible muttering.
"Are you through?" said the voice.
He fought to stifle himself. "Yeah. Sorry. I insist on being my own worst enemy. How do I get down?"
"Your place will be halfway."
He flushed with relief, then chuckled despondently. "Mediocre in death as in life." But what about Rita? he thought. Why was he assuming she was below - because she'd had a thousand men, not to mention several women? She'd never married, never broken a vow. Did he want her condemned for having spurned him? He was amazed - he was dead and still sinning.
"Guess I'll never see the light," he said dejectedly, certain his thoughts were heard by the voice.
There was no response. Why had he expected one?
Suddenly he was floating south.
"Wait," he cried, continuing downward. "I have so many questions of a non-personal nature. Was Oswald the lone gunman? Did O.J. really....?"
His voice grew fainter and fainter and was soon lost in the distance.
About the author:
Vic Fortezza is 51. He's had 21 stories published in small press, half of which now appear at various ezines. He has self-published a novel, Close to the Edge, through 1st Books Library. He pays his bills by working data entry in the gold pit at the Commodity Exchange in Manhattan.