My Own Damn Heaven
by Mari Ness
Even I have to admit that everything here, tap, bottle, or can, is incredible. I have the bartender pour me another, and another, and another, always trying to ask for different brews, different liquors, trying to see what flickers in and out of the racks behind him, or on tap. A couple of brews stay around pretty permanently, but some only seem to be here for a few minutes before flickering out again.
I drink rapidly, trying to be ill. It never works, but I've never given up hope. Whatever it is, it's good.
My father is grinning broadly, singing, swaying with his friends. The sound system — marvelously crystal-clear — is playing something from the Rolling Stones, which feels incredibly wrong under the circumstances, but nobody, even the bartender, objects. My mother is dancing nearby, swinging from the arms of one friend to another. I can, if I focus, just hear the ocean.
"My god, boys, this is heaven."
And it really is.
I am trapped in my parents' heaven.
This is truly hell.
• • •
I like to think that another me is in his own heaven somewhere — a real heaven, filled with exactly the sort of things we'd both want.
If you really want to make yourself happy, shoot our — your — parents. Now, I try to think at him. And then shoot them again.
I fantasize about this a lot.
My father's heaven — no, my parents' heaven — has guns, but they always vanish when I put a hand on them.
• • •
My mother bustles over to the bar to put her arm around me. She turns to her friends. "Did I ever tell you about—" my mother starts off, and then goes into a story about how I saved a hundred patients with some miraculous discovery.
It's a very nice story each time I hear it, with only one small flaw: It never happened. At all. In real life, I screwed up my first year in college and flunked out the second, then drifted here and there before taking up a job as a motel manager. It was a good job, a solid paying job, and when we were bought out and renovated by some major motel chain, it even offered benefits and a bit of a travel opportunity. I probably even could have risen in the corporate ranks there if I'd headed back to college and finished up a degree. But I had my job, and I liked it: the crazy people, the whining families, the cheerful tourists, the elderly couples who had arguing down to an art form, the cautious hookers who always dressed up, not down. Oh yeah, I had nights of hatred and bitterness and drinking, but find me someone who doesn't.
Find me a doctor who doesn't.
In their heaven, they don't want to know about this. So in their heaven, I'm a doctor.
Only not quite. If this wasn't heaven, and if anyone here actually got ill — god help them, literally. Because they can call me a doctor all they want, even make me nod along with it, but they haven't made me — the real, inside me — a doctor. I don't know the meaning of half of the medical terms my mother is spouting. Don't care to know, really.
Luckily, no one here needs saving. At least not by a doctor.
• • •
I never knew anyone could lie in heaven.
I'm surprised by how well I can.
• • •
It's not surprising, I guess, that my parents would end up forming their heaven together. I don't know if this is normal or not — I've never been able to get out of this one long enough to tell — but from the flickers I've gotten from the others here, I'm thinking it's relatively rare. Most of us form our own heavens. Or our own hells.
But not my parents. They were always, as long as I knew them, joined at the hip, always together, always finishing each other's sentences. Other kids worried about their parents' divorcing. Not me. I wondered if they'd ever let me in, until I grew up and knew better.
• • •
I wasn't here when this heaven formed. I got my dad in one of his more lucid moments — drinking some of the really fabulous whisky at the bar, which managed in heavenly fashion to give you the perfect buzz without a hangover — to admit that he'd gotten here first, to the empty beach, the quiet sands, and just sat and watched the water for awhile. A long while; he didn't know how long. And then a friend had shown up to talk, and then another, and then my mother, and then a long, long time later, me.
He doesn't remember that conversation, but I do.
And that was pretty much the way it happened, too, in real life. He had cancer, one of those shitty types that ate most of him away and left him in hideous pain that he insisted on fighting, again and again, until his heart started giving out and the pain got too much I guess and he agreed to hospice. Where he stayed for months. You know those movies with the nice, quick deaths? Didn't happen. I kept coming and coming, thinking this trip would be the last, this would be it, and it never was, until it was.
My mother lived for seven more years. I kept watching her, thinking I couldn't go through that again, that she couldn't make me go through that again. And she didn't. She had cancer, too, but esophageal cancer that moved quickly, bringing along first a cough, and then weight loss, and then nothing. It was fast. I thought that was better.
In a way.
And then me, sometime later.
• • •
My father is a little boy again, playing softball with his friends. I am in the stands, watching, as he pitches ball after ball, as he takes up and swings the bat. To my surprise, he doesn't strike anyone out, doesn't always hit a run, but he is laughing, and his friends are laughing, and I find myself cheering them on.
Then he is an older man again, grinning, taking the softball into his cabin.
The baseball diamond shimmers and folds, and I am standing among quiet trees, listening for the crack of a bat, the yells of spectators.
• • •
My parents filled their heaven with other shades from their lives: good friends, some relatives (a couple of aunts are conspicuously missing, and I can't say I miss them or feel inclined to remind my father of their presence.) A few of my grandparents occasionally show up, flickering in for a moment before disappearing rapidly.
I guess my parents didn't like them as much as I did. Or maybe they think that heaven is a place without parents.
• • •
I know how I died. Car accident.
I know, because it wasn't fast, wasn't immediate. And for once, not my fault. I've had a few beers and driven before — hell, we all have — but this time I was stone cold sober, alert, stopped at a red light, when some other bastard with a few cold beers inside him plowed into me.
It took me several hours to die.
I did a lot of thinking.
• • •
My mother pulls me aside. "I like to see you happy," she tells me, beaming.
Are you kidding me? I think, but don't say.
Maybe she can't tell. Maybe this heaven shows her only a happy me, a content me.
• • •
It might be easier if this place had more people my age. Well, in a way, it does — no one is really old here, and everyone moves forward and back, their faces shifting depending upon what moments my parents choose to remember. But whatever their ages, they are my parents' friends, not mine, and that's as impossible to forget as the various details of my life.
• • •
"My son," says my father proudly. "The doctor."
God, not again. In my heaven, I am positive I am not doing crap like this to my friends, my daughter. I manage a weak, sickly smile. After all my time here, you'd think I'd be able to fake it better than this, but I haven't quite mastered that trick.
My father's friends don't seem to mind, though. They grin back at him, slapping my back, clasping my hand, taking my weak smile as a sign of humility.
• • •
The thought of eternity with my parents shouldn't make me this miserable. But it does.
• • •
My parents' friends — quite a lot of them — aren't too bad. Some, like me, seem to be nearly permanent fixtures, like my mother's best friend Carla who is pretty much always around, especially when, as she whispers to me, my parents are, well, doing it. (Sorry, it's my parents. Even saying just that much totally squicks me out.) I'm fairly sure I know why Carla gets to overhear that sort of thing, and I don't; Carla spent a lot of time telling my mother various details about her wilder life, and, well, I guess my mother needs to rub it in a bit in heaven.
I'm more interested in the less permanent ones, the friends who flicker in and out. Partly because this means something at least a little new, a little different (although most of these have gotten pretty familiar too), partly because this gives me a chance to see another side of my parents, something I never knew when I was growing up. You know how it is: Your parents' friends are well, boring, and afterward you just don't have time.
• • •
My father is telling a story — it's about the fifth or sixth time he's told it here, in my hearing, but the first time I've really heard it, I think, about him and a Santa Claus on the subway.
You never told me that story, I think.
Or maybe he did. My memories of my life are pretty good, for a dead guy, but I don't remember everything. Maybe his idea of heaven is having a kid who finally listens.
I take another long sip of some marvelous beer.
• • •
The jokes get told, over and over again. Sometimes I want to scream. The other shades laugh dutifully, maybe a bit more than dutifully. Well, they're my parents' friends; I guess they'd share the same sense of humor.
I don't know if any of them are like me, aware. Well, aware that we are all dead, certainly, at least on some level. I could see my mother's friend Mags trembling at something, hands shaking — and then forgetting again. Or pretending to forget, at least.
Even I don't spend any time reminding everyone that we're all dead. Even with the endless time we have.
• • •
I don't exactly sleep, but I do go to the cabin they've set aside from me from time to time, to lie down and cover myself with a blanket. I'm not sure why, but it feels comforting, at least, and when I close my eyes, I can pretend I'm going to sleep.
I see my mother smiling, sometimes, when I head off to the cabin. In life, I was never particularly good about going to bed on time. Here, well, what's the point of arguing?
• • •
One thing I don't get: why I still remember the truth, why I know that I'm not a doctor. Because the actual son of my parents' heaven, of their dreams, really would be a doctor, really would know all those medical terms my mother starts to spout at her friends whenever I approach.
They don't see me, but they haven't changed me, either.
• • •
We have nights and stars and glorious sunrises and glorious sunsets, almost whenever we want them. Or whenever my parents want them, which can be disconcerting. I can be down on the beach, leafing through one of the books that flicker in and out, when suddenly it's sunset, or a luau, or my parents are insisting that everyone dance under the stars.
I never danced much when I was alive. I don't dance much now.
• • •
The bartender, the food servers, and the massage therapist aren't friends or relatives. I don't know what they are. When I try to talk to them, they only smile, and never offer any answers.
• • •
"When are you going to bring Bridget by for a visit?" my mother asks.
"I can't believe you've stayed apart from her this long," she says. She beams around at her audience. "He's such a great father."
That's not true, either. I never saw much of Bridget after the divorce. She didn't like me much, and OK, I guess the feeling was mutual.
She wasn't there in the last hours. My ex showed up, with her new husband, but not Bridget.
I have a sudden vision of Bridget and me, in another heaven, playing together, her having to watch my devoted, silly grin —
God, no. I don't hate the kid that much. Do I?
And I certainly don't want her in my heaven.
I try to send a reminder note to that other self, in the other heaven.
• • •
After the granddaughter talk — which is, what? About the eighth granddaughter talk, the ninth, the tenth — god, I have got to stop counting these things — I head off to one of the small cabins, by the side, where a massage therapist is usually waiting.
She isn't one of my father's friends.
• • •
I watch my parents dancing together, laughing softly on the beach.
I never really knew them. Never knew what would or could make them happy. Never knew that something like this — a beach, a bar, some cabins, their friends, some music — would be enough.
• • •
I wonder if my friends and I can wander back and forth between our heavens, do a little visiting, or if it's like this one: peopled only by shadows of my friends. Shadows who might, like me, remember a little, know a little, know that they've ended up in someone else's heaven.
I wonder who is in Elisa's. If any of my shades will ever flicker in Bridget's.
• • •
God, I pray that I've put some variety into my heaven. And a lot more space. Even if it's just hot chicks and booze for the first several millennia of eternity — hell, I know myself — I want to be able to travel, see other places, other worlds. That would be heaven: stepping on an alien world. I wonder if my father has ever thought of that. If he ever will think of that.
• • •
My father corners me again, puts his arm around me, tells me again how proud he is of all of my medical accomplishments. These have grown. I apparently earned an MD and a PhD and some sort of Congressional Medal Thing and shared a Nobel. My stomach tightens.
"Ever think of other worlds?" I ask.
My father blinks.
"Other worlds?" He's not the repetitive sort, but I seem to have lost him there.
"You know, like, Star Trek shit. Aliens. Planets with two suns. Eight moons. Monsters. Bouncing on the moon."
It's a rush of images in my head, from all the science fiction shows and movies I used to watch. Used to watch with him, which is suddenly part of the point.
"Why would I want anything else besides this?" he says, spreading his arms, and beaming.
And suddenly everyone is bounding from the bar again, ready for another party.
• • •
I don't just need another drink. I need to get drunk.
• • •
Board games. Thank god. It's something to focus on, at least, and unlike the books and the movies and the sports games, these won't end until the game does — my parents are both too into board games for that. They have both the classics — Scrabble, Monopoly — some newer things, some games I've never heard of before, that may only exist here.
They ask me to play. For once, I grin for real, and settle down next to my mother. She offers me a glass of lemonade, a big bowl of popcorn, and a plate of cookies.
"You're trying to cheat," I tell her, and she laughs.
• • •
I am a little boy again, playing in the sand, chortling, while my mother builds a sand castle with me.
In my mind I'm remembering Elisa, remembering the way we laughed in bed together, the way we never did manage to make it to the beach, no matter how many plans we made.
• • •
The others — the friends, the relatives — have to be aware. They have to. They have to know that this is my parents' heaven, not theirs, but none of them want to say anything.
And so they change the subject, or turn from me, but not before I see a small flicker in their eyes. They know, I think. They know. I wonder if any of them have come from other heavens — this can't be the only one. I wonder if any of them have seen me there, or if this is the only place I exist.
• • •
No. No. I exist. I definitely exist. Or I existed. I was nobody important, but I existed, and I have my own damn heaven someplace.
Just not here.
• • •
Right. Right? This isn't going to turn into one of those stories where I turn out to be the memory of some unborn child my mother always wanted, right? Right?
• • •
• • •
For once, when I lay down I almost have a dream. Not a real dream, not like the living dreams I had once. But for once I almost see her, a green girl in a filmy sundress, walking on the beach, barefooted. My mother runs up to her, hugging her tightly, crying. The daughter my mother never had, the daughter she wanted, the daughter I wasn't.
Only I'm not seeing this, and my eyes are closed, in the cabin that is the closest thing to something I can call my own here.
• • •
If I weren't real, if I didn't exist, then the daughter my mother never had should be here too. Only she isn't.
• • •
I seek out the massage therapist. "I know you're not exactly part of this place," I start.
She smiles, bends, turns to leave. I reach out to touch her shoulder. "Wait," I say. "You don't have to deny or confirm anything. You just—" I'm saying this badly. "I just — I need to talk, that's all, before I go totally off the deep end."
She turns back, gazing at me with slow, steady eyes.
"Or are you going to tell me I'm already there?"
She puts a gentle hand on my shoulder and smiles. "No," she says. "No."
And then we are at another dance.
• • •
It's not always this dreamlike. Sometimes it's normal, routine, with lazy days and regular nights, just like an endless vacation.
• • •
I never really wanted a sibling when I was alive, but god, do I want one now. (Taking the Lord's name in vain, incidentally, doesn't seem to do much here, one way or another.)
• • •
My mother is telling that damn medical story again. This time, for some reason, I feel inclined to protest. "Mom—"
She throws up her hands. "He doesn't want us to be proud of him," she says, her voice shaking a little. "Never lets us talk about him. Not even in school. He won all of these prizes, got straight As, had the best math tests around, all of this potential, and when we told people? He'd get mad. Throw a temper tantrum and run away. I ask you, what type of kid doesn't want praise?"
What type of kid wants his parents using him as a trophy, I want to ask. What type of kid wants parents who insist he has to follow their chosen path, that he'll be nothing if he isn't a doctor, a genius? Who care more about fame and money than happiness?
Not that I'd had a lot of that either. "Mom—" I repeated.
Her voice is shaking more now. "We told him and told him. We'd be proud of him, even if he was working as a manager in some seedy hotel someplace."
My stomach tightens. They know. They know. Goddamn, they know, and I'm still stuck here.
"So, what, we're not going to brag about our cardiac surgeon?" She reaches over and pulls me into a tight hug. "He made us so proud."
I severely need a drink. The kind that will give you a real hangover. I settle for another one of those massages instead.
• • •
In their heaven they don't want to know who I am.
• • •
My father smiles at me, blinks a little. "You know," he says, almost casually, "the worst hell I could imagine is never seeing you again."
Parents. Even in heaven, still good at the guilt trips.
• • •
This isn't a bad heaven, mind you. It's got a great bar, a lovely long strip of beach with an always perfect ocean, that sometimes mellows to utter flatness for a perfect swim, and sometimes raises the waves just enough for some light surfing. The fish glow with color. A couple of waverunners appear and disappear on the beach every once in awhile; I ride them with my father sometimes. A small cabin provides massages on demand, and food — ah, the food. Only when my mother and father want it, but when they want it — I've never tasted anything like it, never imagined tasting anything like it. Heavenly is too weak a word. The small cabins have deep, luxurious beds and small whirlpools. The Packers and Pirates win every game; I see my father laughing and chortling and pounding the table. My mother never loses a single piece of her jigsaw puzzles; she plays the piano beautifully; she is surrounded by friends. Books appear and disappear; I grab them while I can, reading a few chapters before they vanish.
I've never been as fast a reader as my parents.
When I get tired of sports and the bar — and this is often — I head out into the ocean, and rest. Sometimes I let myself sink, far down beneath the water, burying my body in the sands, letting my lungs fill with water.
I never quite manage to drown.
• • •
And then it is just me and my father at the bar, the friends gone, my mother gone. Even the bartender — who I suddenly realize I've never seen leave the place, ever, let alone sleep — is down at the other end, doing unnecessary cleaning up. (The glasses here, once emptied, clean themselves, or flicker away. The oak counter couldn't shine any more.)
We both have bourbon in our shot glasses. My father raises his to me in a toast. After a moment I raise mine back. We gulp it down. It is the best bourbon I've ever tasted.
As if freed by the bourbon, I lean forward, put a hand on his arms. "I hate medicine," I say, conversationally, lightly. Not at all as if it's a major confession. "Hated biology."
My glass is full again. I sip it down, and smile.
For a moment, just a moment, I see the realization in his eyes. See that even in his heaven, I'm not the son he wants me to be.
Just a moment, a flicker, and then he's back with his friends at the bar, laughing it up.
But that one moment, that one realization, gives me hope.
They're going to know. They're going to know.
"Another bourbon," I say.
And for a moment, a small moment, I almost feel drunk.
Copyright © 2016 by Mari Ness