Fiction: “I Thought I Was Going to Die” by Raphaela Weissman

i. In The Elevator

I heard a rumbling. I thought the other guy heard it too, the old man with the shopping bag, wearing a sweater vest and a hat that used to have some kind of special name when he was younger, before my time— fisherman’s cap. No, sandcatcher. Something like that.

It was a special rumbling. It’s always a special sound, when I think I’m going to die. I wanted to ask the old man, can’t you tell that there’s something different about that, that it’s coming from the bowels of the elevator shaft? He’s older than I am and has probably been riding elevators since they were made differently. Maybe rumbling louder than this was what an elevator ride used to sound like; maybe you were taking your life in your hands every time you set foot inside one of these, and they had a cute name for them, death boxes or the devil’s dumbwaiter. I’m just guessing. I would have asked him. It would have been the last thing I ever learned.

ii. Camping

I argued with myself for what seems like an hour in the still darkness of the tent. If I speak, I thought, I will be destroying the silence and everything about it. That will be on me. “Just because it’s a cliché to get mauled by a bear on a camping trip doesn’t mean it can’t happen,” I said.

“Ssssssh,” everyone said.

iii. In My Desk Chair Late At Night

I found a dot I’d never found before. A spot. Irregularly shaped. On my thigh. I’d never seen it before. Maybe I had, but it looked different this time. Difference— the silent killer. I asked the Internet, over and over again, and it grew later and later and the spot looked more and more irregular. I touched it, trying to make sense of an unknown illness with my fingers. Nothing made sense.

When I closed my laptop and shrunk my room into darkness and crawled into my bed, it was because I remembered I was already on the lookout for cockroaches and bedbugs, and I’d promised myself to keep it to one thing at a time for a while.

iv. On the Subway

I was feeling good. But isn’t that always when it happens?

v. At a Play

I would have the good fortune to sit directly in front of the guy with photos of John Wilkes Booth plastered all over his bedroom walls, newspaper clippings from that day saved in a scrapbook with his baby pictures. He’s been waiting his whole life for this moment, and here I am.

vi. In Bed, Late at Night

It must be an instinct, staying up until sunrise, because my parents didn’t teach me, and I didn’t learn it in school. Somewhere I can’t remember, I was trained to interpret shadow shapes on the wall and to pluck out the noises other people can’t hear. At some point I absorbed the knowledge that a human being, armed and with an intent to kill, can make themselves as silent as an empty house. Two voices have been arguing with each other since I was born: One says, Remember this morning? You woke up in this bed. The other one says, This time, I won’t.

vii. On the Airplane

“Just because it’s a cliché to be afraid of flying,” I whisper to the person sitting next to me, “doesn’t mean people don’t die in airplane crashes every day.”

viii. Having Sex

I hope people will allow themselves to think it’s funny, after an appropriate amount of time has passed. I hope someone will point out the fact that my last living act was to make someone a necrophiliac for a few seconds. I hope that someone else will act offended and tell him that the remark was in bad taste, and that later a third person will find him and whisper that she thought it was funny.

ix. At Work

Who would discover me at my desk? Not Cheryl, please, God, not Cheryl. My mother brought me into this world— my mother, lovely, soft-spoken, self-deprecating, patient, generous, my mother whose hands smelled like lemons, who got a thousand paper cuts a year, who’d only wear her pretty paisley blouse for special occasions, who hummed songs from Bye Bye Birdie while she washed dishes and didn’t think anyone could hear, who bought me a box of colored pencils for my eleventh birthday and I didn’t know until I opened it that it was exactly what I wanted, who shushed us in the car while she was trying to listen to NPR, who let me lie on her stomach while she watched TV— and now Cheryl who stares at the blank wall in the copy room while she waits for a fax to go through was going to be there as I left it. Not bloody likely.

xi. Directly After My Broken Heart

It would not be a coincidence. Or would it? He’d never know. He’d wonder and wonder. It would torture him for the rest of his days. He’d excuse himself from the funeral reception to walk outside and sit on a rock and stare at the road. He’d visit my grave and speak to it, to me, and maybe once he’d even sleep there.

That would be nice.

xii. My First Time Doing Mushrooms

“Just because it’s unusual to get a fatally bad batch,” I whispered to my roommate’s asshole friend who got these for us, “doesn’t mean it never happens.”

He sneered at me like I was ruining everything that’s ever existed.

xiii. In the Jardins de Luxembourg

I’ve watched the same boy try and fail to grab the gold ring at the edge of the carousel four or five times now, and I can’t read the expression on his face, which is killing me. I need to know if he’s frustrated or crying or doesn’t care because he’s a child; maybe he’s smiling and laughing, because that’s what the carousel’s for. The not seeing is making me sad; nothing seems right today at the Jardins de Luxembourg. My little green chair isn’t in quite a scenic enough spot, and there was a lone duck on the lawn outside the palatial building whose function I still haven’t bothered to learn, where all the pigeons hang out, and it must have been lost and no one could do anything about it, and every one of these children looks ready to fall at high speed because the ring is just that far out of reach. I’d almost rather meet my end here than sit in the middle of this neat stack of imperfections, knowing it will follow me out into the street and who knows where after that.

xiv. Mid-Failure

“She left the world with nothing,” I imagine the eulogist intoning, “And no one was surprised.”

xv. On Vacation With My Family

I was maybe seven, and we were staying at this cabin practically in Lake George. There were a bunch of other families there and our cabins were all nose-to-nose with each other and we just swam all day, and into the evening. My sister and I made hour-long friendships with all of the kids there, easy as you please— what’s your name, how old are you, and we’d be set. We only brought one bathing suit apiece— mine was red, a little big in parts and a little tight in others, and every morning I’d pull it on even though it was still wet. My father became the most popular guy there, because he’d toss all the kids around in the water and he’d take requests for their style choice— one was called the cannonball, and one was the javelin, where we’d stretch our little bodies out across his arms and put our hands in prayer position above our heads, and he’d launch us out and we’d go, it seemed, for miles.

The sun would set spectacularly, the kind of sunset you’d pay to see, and we were right there at horizon-level, so close we could touch it, like it was just for us. That week felt like undeserved special treatment; there was nothing to it, there was no reason.

At night, the four of us would lie together in one room and I’d know that everyone was smiling in their sleep and it was dark and close and safe, and I’d stay awake, thinking, This can’t be. This can’t last.

xvi. After A Joke

It was finals and we were in the dining hall, me and my freshman year friends I could practically see smiling noncommittally at me when the new semester began and finding better people to spend time with. I was hanging on for dear life.

Stephanie complained that it had been raining all week. “You should write a strongly worded letter,” I said, and everyone laughed.

Like a movie, things slowed down for a moment and I looked at their faces one by one. I felt so good, and then it was there again, the death voice, and this time it said, At least you’ll go out on a good line.

xvii. Watching a War Documentary

It’s all so absurd and so true, that some people will never fully wake from a lifelong sleep and then slip on something and it will end like well-crafted punctuation, and some have seen bodies piled in the streets. It’s so far removed from me that I can bear the sight of limbs piled in mountains, twisted arms ending in hands reaching up towards nothing. It doesn’t move my guts at all, I don’t have to choke anything back when I see it.

I won’t make it all the way through without experiencing something like this, I think. One of those things filling in space on someone’s screen will be me. I’ll learn it that way.

xx. When I Almost Died

The other car came out of nowhere, it seemed. My sister sucked in her breath with this fluidy choke that didn’t sound human and I thought, This is something I never thought I’d hear, and it’s the last thing I’m ever going to hear. My hand went for the handle above the window, but her car doesn’t have one, so I just groped the air, which almost made me feel better. When I closed my eyes I saw white, so I was sure there was a flash of some kind, and I heard a screech of tires and it all made sense, this was what I’d seen before, on TV, in movies, what I’d been waiting for, that panic moment when nothing can stop what’s happening, and I knew I was right all along, that death comes on wings of inertia, for better or worse.

And when I opened my eyes the car wasn’t even stopped, it was still going. The stop light receded behind us and there was the Stewart’s, the post office, places I knew and had never thought about. My sister was speaking. “Hey,” she was saying, “hey, we’re okay.”

And I nodded and choked something. The air conditioning woke up the wet skin on my cheeks; that’s the last thing I would have expected, to cry at a moment like this. I would have thought that all liquid in my body would freeze, like time.

“You’re so skittish,” she said, and even laughed a little. Laughed. The sound was like a door opening at the back of a funeral. “You always were.”

The other car wasn’t around anymore. We were just driving to the mall. It was the most normal moment I’ve ever been in, as normal as waking up in the morning.


Raphaela Weissman is a writer and teacher based in Seattle, Washington. Her fiction has received the 2004 Herbert J. Rubin Award for Excellence in Prose from Gallatin Review and won L Magazine‘s 2007 Pocket Fiction competition. Last year she completed her first novel, Monsters, and is currently at work on a second. She teaches remedial reading at an inner-city high school in Seattle.