The Invisible Man is My Doubt: Thoughts Provoked by a Near Death Experience with My Retainer

“I think about the end just way too much
but it’s fun to fantasize.”
—Twenty One Pilots, “Ride”

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A couple years ago, I almost choked on my retainer. Apparently it slipped off at some point in my sleep and, as it teetered on the back of my tongue, I woke up with it seconds away from plummeting into my throat. After spitting it out, I stared at the ceiling for a solid ten minutes and contemplated how close I’d come to having an obituary that would’ve read like a pun on Spike’s, One-Thousand Ways to Die.

I know.

At some point in time, everyone wonders what the conditions of his or her own death will entail.

Often we like to imagine ourselves dying peacefully in a chair, or vegetative and elderly in a hospital bed. Sometimes, when we’re feeling romantic, we picture ourselves taking a bullet for a stranger at Target. Or else, on the flipside, when we’re feeling nihilistic, we come up with dramatic suicide plans that’ll be utilized when we’re “old and useless.” (These plans usually involve a straight jacket and being ejected from a helicopter flying over Russia, while naked.)

But no one ever thinks, “I’m going to die choking on a retainer.”

After my anti-climatic near death experience, I obsessively thought of gory, terribly dramatic, “What if?” scenarios. Like: What if the elevator moves before I get all the way inside and crushes me? What if I catch Ebola from a fuckboy and start rotting from the inside out? What if I go temporarily insane and start gouging my own eyes out with a steak knife?

Or worse: What if I actually choke on my retainer tonight?

I imagined the paramedics finding me in my bed with crusted drool stains around my mouth and a stray post-it stuck to the butt of my pajamas. One of them would trip over a stack of feminist literature, while the other would survey a pile of dried out carrots and ranch dressing on a plate beside my bed. The room would reek of a dead writer’s last effort.

Then, I imagined how people would react once they heard the news. I pictured everyone saying something along the lines of, “That bitch would choke on her retainer.”

And, somehow, I found this worse than the idea of death itself.

I think because it implied that I would’ve died the way I lived: Clumsily, just hoping to preserve straight teeth.

With this realization, I became acutely aware of all the things I own that are decorated in skulls: T-shirts and tights; a poster of a skull formed by crooked tree branches; a glittery holographic skeleton, hanging from my doorknob. It was like I thought staring at my morbid insides long enough would make me more okay with the fact that someday they’d be my reflection.

Which, living in a society that is obsessed with repressing any inkling of death, it only makes sense that I’d start by repressing any evidence of it on my own face.

(Religious retainer wearing included.)

If I think about it long enough, a walk down the CVS cosmetic aisle really has become an anxiety-fueled practice: Am I willing to sacrifice voluminous glamorous lashes for lengthy natural ones? What are the pros and cons of blackest-black vs. very black? And furthermore, what happens when all the different mascaras stop working and I start getting old?

(The small layer of fat that didn’t used to peek over my waistband makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, like a purr from Hannibal Lector. The bags forming beneath my eyes jump out, like boogeyman, whenever I look in the mirror. And Angelina Jolie’s face, more vital at age forty-one than my own at twenty-four, condemns me to a life of desperation: Can I get a Snap Chat filter, in real life?)

I know it’s silly to be afraid of aging when I’m still so young. (Like: Maybe you should worry about getting a real job, asshole.) But, understand, this premature fear is actually just a way of dealing with an even bigger, much more rational, one—

The fear of dying before I can create a life that can’t be summarized with how I died.

A few days ago, while my mom was driving, I confessed, “You know, I think I’d like to die around forty-five. I think it’d be best if I just F. Scott Fitzgerald-it.” (My logic behind this sudden epiphany being—Forty-five is old enough to have lived, but not old enough to feel old.) Appropriately, “Closer” by the Chain Smokers was playing on the radio, gleefully proclaiming, over and over: We ain’t ever getting older!!!

And I thought: Fuck, we really might not if Donald Trump is president. Which, the thought of it is terrifying: Will the world end? Will everything be erased? Shakespeare, the pyramids, MY FUTURE?!?!?!?!? Never mind the fact that he’s reminiscent of a genocidal dictator! *Cough* Hitler. I HAVE SHIT TO DO!

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I can’t live in New York someday with that asshole in office. How am I supposed to feel safe, in such a populated space, with a hot-head hovering around the big red button?!

NUCLEAR WAR IS NO JOKE!

I envision the whole world, erased. And then I think of me, erased. In this way, I’m no better than the most bigoted Trump supporter. Only instead of being like: No, don’t take my guns away!! The constitution! Equal rights for minorities and women?! Booooo!!! I’m more like: DON’T TAKE THE POSSIBILITY OF MY BEING REMEMBERED AWAY! I’m not ready. Like. I haven’t met Taylor Swift yet! I still need to read Beloved. How does the last season of Orange is the New Black end?! I’m supposed to write something really, really, good someday. I can feel it! I’M NOT READY TO BE A DEAD GIRL YET!

But. Wait. Let me admit something totally paradoxical, and awful—

There isn’t a single girl alive that I’m jealous of. (No offense, I just like myself.) But, the dead ones? SO JEALOUS! Sylvia Plath had my heart (and envy) the moment she said, “I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.” Same thing goes for Amy Winehouse. (My green-eyed monster heard she was known for becoming cutting whenever she felt bored or misunderstood, and it groaned: I want to be known for becoming cutting whenever I feel bored or misunderstood!!!!!) Sometimes I read Marina Keegan’s “Winter Break”, when I’m feeling particularly morose and millennial. And every time I envy her for having written the story equivalent of a knot in my got. How did she craft a world so modern and realistic, and yet—so romantic and irrevocably unsatisfying? Then I cry. Partly because I wish she was still here so we could become friends, but mostly because: WHY CAN’T I DIE IN A TRAGIC CAR ACCIDENT AND GET ALL MY WRITING PUBLISHED?!

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Dead girls. It’s my whitest white-girl complex. Forever young and magnificently angst-y, all preserved in the amber promise of “what could have been”. Like, damn. Can I be too good for this world? I’m pretty fucking sick of it! And still—I understand. All these dead girls died the way I’m afraid of dying: Mid-sentence.

And I know—

In the game of life, you can’t win.

You’re going to lose.

Something is always going to be left unsaid.

Sylvia will never know how it feels to be loved. Amy will never be known for anything more than, “No, no, no…” And Marina didn’t get a say in her first, and only, book.

When I look at the lives of female artists who suicide-ed, and overdosed; whose boyfriends lost control of the vehicle… they all seem so tormented by something they know for sure is going to get them. By some invisible man in the room…

I’ve felt his presence too.

When he whispers into the ear of every artist, every person: What’s the point?

A loaded question that often drives me to type faster, thinking: I’ve got to get to It before It gets to me…

There’s a pain in my right hip, and the alarmist in me whispers: Ovarian cancer.

I think: Don’t consult Web MD. Don’t consult Web MD. Just go to the Doctor…

But I’d rather stay home and write instead.

I’d rather write than pick up the phone.

On the days when my mind feels cloudy with depression, I worry about malaise as a side affect of some pre-existing condition. This makes me type even faster, despite my mind being too fogged up to access the thing I want to say—despite being afraid I’ve never had anything real, or good, to say.

What’s the point?

It’s not death itself that triggers this sense of urgency; it’s the thought of dying and only ever having lived in an unrealized dream.

Drooling and half-choking, with perfect teeth.

Caught between waiting for it to be over and hoping it’ll never end.

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