“Tell a Stranger What You Do”

Spring 2019 – Vol. 8
by M. Lynx Qualey

 

“…can ask about the syllabus later. This morning, we’ll get to know each other.” The professor interlaced his long fingers and cinched them tight across his chest. Sitting there, they looked like a white butterfly pinned to his shirt. “First, I want to know why you signed up for our program.”

The other students turned in chaotic wavelets, seeking each other’s expressions, wincing or smirking or widening their eyes. Not Christine. Her gaze fixed on the professor’s left cheek, where a quarter-sized, perfectly white circle sat in his dark chestnut beard. Otherwise, the beard was barely flecked with gray. The professor’s smile settled on her.

“Riddle me this,” he said, tapping his thumbs against his chestright, left, right. “How many of you, when you finish this program, will tell a stranger what you do?”

There were uncomfortable coughs. Christine kept her throat loose, her expression empty. She wanted to focus on the question, but instead she was drawn into the whirlpool of Mom. She had to call Mom after class. And thinking about Mom drew her, naturally, to Janet.

“This is a serious question.” The professor released his hands and stretched, pulling his shoulders back with a brief wince. “Let’s imagine you’re at a party. Or a bar, perhaps. Some clever and appealing stranger walks up and offers to buy you a drink. You’re in a fair mood. It’s a Friday night. And you know you’re looking all right.”

The professor paused for the handful of early-morning laughs. Christine had the prickly sensation of not understanding the joke.

“So. This appealing stranger asks, ‘And what about you? What do you do?’”

A rubber sole squeaked against the floor.

“All right.” The professor straightened up, his tone crisper. “Show of hands. How many of you tell them: ‘I’m a death coach’?”

Christine glanced over her shoulder. The other students were looking around. A few raised their hands, halfway. 

“What about you?” the professor asked. It took Christine a moment to realize he was asking her. She turned back and smiled, gave her head a small shake.

“Christine, right?” 

She smiled again.

“So there you are, Christine, standing in a bar with this handsome stranger. He’s brought you a drink, and—yes—things are going well. Then he asks, ‘Well, Christine, what do you do?’”

Blood surged into her face. She felt dizzy and annoyed. “Health care.”

The professor’s eyebrows rose. He had to be past fifty, she thought. He looked older than he had last Friday, in the bar’s dim light. His features were tighter than she remembered, the skin of his throat looser.

“Okay, Christine,” he said. “Health care. But what exactly do you do in that —very largefield?”

Someone behind Christine snorted, and she took in a breath. “Palliative care.”

The professor backed up a little, his mouth sliding into a mock-impressed O. 

“I gather you don’t want to talk about death with your irresistible stranger?” His gaze narrowed to encompass only her. “Why not?”

“I think that’s pretty obvious,” a guy on her right—Bassem—said. “Most people don’t like to talk about death when they’re out on a date.”

Bassem flicked his gaze over at her, and Christine wanted to reach back with a tiny grateful smile. The professor looked down at his screen, and she gave Bassem a quick, earnest nod. He nodded back.

“Plus,” Bassem said, “we aren’t doing this job so we can brag about it at a bar.     We’re—”

“I’m sure I didn’t say anything about bragging.” The professor’s head swept up, but he wasn’t looking at Bassem. He was looking at her. “I am suggesting that you tell—the—truth. Because, as you all know, some people don’t believe in what we do. Some still think it’s so-called quackery. Clearly, the weight of global scientific evidence is on our side, yes. But a lot of man-on-the-street types still associate us with charlatans.”

“Like climate change a hundred years ago,” someone drawled from the back, and several students laughed, although it didn’t strike Christine as either accurate or funny.

The professor nodded, and the weight of his attention finally lifted from her. She breathed in. It was a mistake to have gone out last Friday. 

“What do you say to the doubters, Lila?” The professor’s gaze swept around the room. “I imagine we have some doubters here among us. We always do.”

As soon as class was over, Christine would check on her mom. Everything would be okay. Not great—but—okay. Mom would ask: How was your first day? Then: Have you called your sister? Mom’s voice would be thin and paper-sharp, and it would slip in beneath Christine’s skin. I will

“It totally depends on the doubter, right?” Lila asked. “Some people seriously aren’t worth the breath. Besides, I mean, it’s not my responsibility to convince them. If they don’t want to have a good death, that’s kind of their problem.”

The professor leaned against his desk. “Yet aren’t we the ambassadors of our profession?” He pushed off and walked past Christine, wafting spicy cologne down the center row. She didn’t turn to look after him. Instead, she looked over at Bassem, who gave her a chagrined smile. 

“Through this program, you will be granted an access to Death that most of your American peers will never have. At least—not until they meet the big D. Is it not your responsibility, then, to help them understand? To use your example, Lila, we could argue that climate scientists abdicated this responsibility. And we all know how that turned out.” The professor gestured vaguely toward the window. As a group, they turned to look at the gray haze beyond.

“I think this is different,” another woman’s voice said from the back.

“Oh? How is that—” The professor paused, looking down at his screen, “—

Nianzhen?” He continued to pace through the room, weaving between the desks. 

“Our job is not exactly—life or death,” Nianzhen said, with an uncomfortable laugh. “We aren’t responsible for the future of the planet, Sir. Nor billions of human lives. We’re just doing this moment of—”

“Is that it?” the professor’s voice went up eagerly, and Christine turned to see him holding up a hand, as he had at the bar last Friday. “You enrolled yourself in this program. You plan to spend the rest of your life in this profession, and you think it’s just about a moment?”

“Nnno,” the woman said, her voice slow and offended. “I’m talking about—how other people see us. I mean, Sir, the people you said. Doubters.”

“How other people see us,” the professor repeated, and he paced back to the front of the room. He stood, feet planted, hands behind his back. Christine did not look at his face.

 “I assume most of you spun some to get into this program,” the professor said. “I don’t care what you said on your application. In here, we’re going to be honest. We’re going to say what we really think.”

Christine rolled her eyes internally.

“Chris-tine.” The professor broke her name into two distinct pieces. “Tell us what you think happens when a person dies.”

Gall rose in Christine’s throat, and she swallowed it. She had done a year of cram school to get into this program. She had memorized vocabulary, wrestled with formulas, written essays, practiced for the interviewssometimes with Janet, mostly in a mirror.

The professor must have known how hard she’d worked to climb onto this perch. He certainly knew how easily he could flick her from it.

“When a person dies,” Christine said, “their systems fail in a generally predictable order. The nervous system usually remains alone at the end, without input.”

“Yes, and?” the professor said. “What does that have to do with us?”

“We can take nuanced readings from the brain in those final minutes, which is how we have been able to establish the science that underpins death coaching.” Christine had to stop for a moment. Breathe. She remembered how, when her father’s body failed, the machines had beeped in increasingly high-pitched tones, like ever-larger stones being thrown at her.

“It’s time,” a nurse had messaged them, from somewhere else in the building. The machines beeped even louder, and Christine’s mom pressed both hands to her throat. “I love you, Camden,” she shouted, as if Christine’s dad had been far, far away. Then she turned and mouthed to Christine: “Where is Janet?” 

Dad had sucked in a loud, wet breath, and they’d both turned to him. His eyes were open, but they stared at nothing.

“Yes,” the professor said, startling Christine. Now, he turned to Bassem. “Do you know how many people still believe in an afterlife?”

“Globally?” Bassem asked. “Or—”

“No, not globally.” The professor looked faintly pained as he pulled at the hairs in the white circle on his cheek. It was the first thing Christine had noticed about him, when she’d seen him at the Hakka Bar on Friday night. She’d stared at him—at the odd quarter-sized circle—and he’d smiled. Her whole body tensed as he lifted his hand and walked over. He asked if she was staring at his deformity. She bent her knees a little and laughed. When he asked again, she admitted yes, she had been staring. “Sorry.” 

“All right, nationally,” Bassem said, undaunted. “Here, belief in an afterlife hovers around eighty-eight percent. According to—”

“So nearly ninety percent of your fellow Americans.” The professor pushed off his desk and walked between Christine and Bassem. Bassem turned to watch him. Christine did not. “Nine out of ten yokels think what we do is useless. So then. Why do so many sign up for our services?”

“It’s a just-in-case thing,” a man’s voice said from behind Christine.

“‘Just in case?’” the professor said, his voice bright with disappointment. “That’s scarcely an answer, Mr. Linehan. People don’t smear their bodies with shit ‘just in case,’ do they? They don’t pray to the Norse gods or put crayons up their noses ‘just in case.’ So why this just-in-case, among all the infinite just-in-cases?”

“Because it fits,” Bassem said, leaning angrily toward the professor. “Like—a lot of contemporary science, this doesn’t displace other beliefs. It complements. Fits alongside. What we offer doesn’t prevent them from reaching their own heaven, instead it—”

“And yet there isn’t a heaven,” the professor said, taking long strides back to his desk, “is there?”

Bassem said nothing. He picked up a pen, twiddled it for a moment, and set it down. 

Christine’s mother had spun in circles during those final moments. “Find your sister,” she’d said, both hands pressed hard against her throat. Christine had walked to the door. She’d called faintly for a nurse. 

The nurses had known what Christine was doing. If she’d been caught, they would have pretended to know nothing. One of them had told her, “You’re his family. That means not even the director can stop you sitting with your father, talking about whatever you like. But don’t do it when any of us is nearby.” 

The two of them had discussed his afterlife in halting whispers. They kept the details a secret from everyone: even Janet, even Mom. Christine’s dad wanted to spend his final minutes—his “forever”—at the docks. He wanted the scent of fish in the air, the sun on his face, and Christine by his side. 

He had understood, from the literature, that you had to keep things simple. If you tried to build an afterlife with a dozen loved ones, it wasn’t likely to hold. Your final moments would crumble into a confusing, nightmarish mess. If you wanted it to work, you had to focus on a handful of things. Three—or four. Christine’s dad wanted 1) the docks, 2) the smell of fish, 3) the sun on his face, and 4) his daughter Christine. Those four things, forever.

They practiced endlessly, in the tiny room by themselves. He gripped the fishing rod while she wafted the smell of the lake beneath his nose: fish, algae, wood, and sunscreen mixed with sweat. She switched on an artificial sun and held it above his forehead. Then she sat beside him, talking calmly, using the same script every time. She wove him deep into the memory.

She’d quit both jobs for this, and they practiced every day for hours. “It’s like rehearsals before our big debut,” she told him, and he gave her one of his lopsided smiles. During the last ten days, Christine slept in a hard chair at the facility. Both of them dreamt of the lake. Sometimes, she dreamt that the lake was part of her own afterlife.

In the dream, they’d died together. They were sitting on an uncomfortable wooden bench, the air around them smelling of fish and algae and cheap sunscreen. Sometimes, she asked why they couldn’t be sitting in armchairs and smelling sweet red-bean soup.

Her whole life, Christine had been close with her dad. After high school, she didn’t want to go abroad. She stayed near home, working in retail fulfillment. Her scores weren’t high enough for university anyway, and she wasn’t like Janet—she never was smart enough. The work wasn’t bad. Two five-hour shifts, six days a week. Enough to live on. Then she and Dad saw a documentary about someone who went back for cram school and became a theoretical physicist. 

Christine didn’t want to move to Beijing and think about infinity. She wanted a practical profession. She looked for the greatest demand, the best working conditions, the most financial security. She settled on death coach.

She was halfway through cram school when the diagnosis came. Dad told her first, before Mom or Janet. For a while, she went on working both jobs, doing cram at night, sitting with her dad during off hours. He talked about his doctor visits, the books he was reading.

Then she finished. She passed the exams and was accepted into the best death-coaching program in the state. Her dad was post-surgery when they celebrated her acceptance letter. She wept, and he held her hand between the two of his. That night, he asked if she would try it with him. “I know it’s a lot to ask,” he said. “But maybe you could walk your old dad down the aisle?”

She stared at him, unsure what to say.

“If it doesn’t work, that’s all right,” he’d said. “But we might as well try.”

“Christine,” the professor said sharply. “Do you believe in an afterlife?”

It was the same question he’d asked at the bar. Or no, he’d asked: “Do you believe there can be whores in the afterlife?”

“I’m undecided,” she said now. He seemed to delight in her answer. 

“Un-de-ci-ded.” He tugged on a different finger with each syllable. “How many of you are undecideds?”

Christine didn’t look around, but no one in her field of vision raised their hand. Then Bassem did. She gave him the faintest of smiles. 

“Would you hire a death coach?”

“Absolutely,” Bassem said. “It doesn’t matter whether I believe in an afterlife. No matter what happens, the moment a person dies is critical.”

“Christine?” the professor asked.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Bassem tense. It made her want to hurl something at the professor’s face, to make up for Friday night. “Can you believe,” he’d told her while she looked around for an escape, “that one fellow wanted an afterlife of eternal orgasm? Of course—well—once he’d said it, I couldn’t believe more men didn’t ask for the same. Just imagine, his death coach practiced with him every day for hours.” The professor laughed as he drunkenly mimed oral sex. “You’d think the story had a happy ending. But by the end, he was—bored—of her. The girl wasn’t even pretty. So there he was, at the…”

Christine turned away, looking toward the door. 

“I’m sorry. Is this boring you, young lady?” 

“Not at all.” She looked back, smiling. She didn’t know who he was, but she knew he must be important. She knew she shouldn’t have come out to this bar, to this district. 

“You look bored,” he said.

She re-fixed her smile. “Definitely not. I just have a lot on my mind.”

His smile shifted, reptile-like, as he leaned in toward her, his breath heavy with baijiu. “What exactly do you have on your mind?”

Electricity pulsed through Christine’s spine, erasing her thoughts.

“It’s all right,” he said, conspiratorially. “How about we go somewhere else? I’ve got a place in the University Quarter, near the old Witch’s Hat. It’s a lovely old house, built before the storm.”

“Sorry, I have to go. My mother is—ill.”

She turned, and he reached out and squeezed her ass. She scuttled away, and he lunged after her, grabbing it a second time, holding on like a fish.

“Your loss,” he said, when Christine got free. She kept walking, her body stiff with mortified fury. An arm caught her at the door, and she almost screamed, but it was the bouncer, shouting at her that she hadn’t closed her tab. 

“If you can’t pay,” he shouted, “then I have to take you right to the station.” 

“I can pay,” she shouted back. “I just forgot.”

The man with the white circle in his beard sauntered up, smiling, asking the bouncer what was wrong. The bouncer explained that the young lady hadn’t paid her bill. Christine was fumbling with her purse, with her billfold, looking around through a haze of confused tears. The bearded man put her drinks on his account. 

“Don’t you worry about it,” he said, draping a heavy hand over her shoulder. “No strings attached. Not for a girl as—adorable—as you.”

She walked out of the bar, head down, into the unfiltered night air. On the bus, she struggled against tears all the way home, her face turned to the window so that no one would see. 

At home, she’d choked down her misery and smiled at Mom. Then shut herself in the bedroom. 

“Christine?” the professor asked. “Would you hire a death coach?”

“If I could—afford it.”

The professor smiled. “And have you imagined your afterlife?” He raised his gaze to encompass the rest of the class. “How many of you know what you would choose, if you had only a month or two to live?”

Christine had no idea how many hands went up, but the professor looked mildly surprised. A beep sounded, and a few students jumped in their seats. Nervous laughs echoed through the room as the lights dimmed and an advertisement came on. They all relaxed, waiting for it to be over. It was for Baidu-Xiaomi Merging Services, and Christine wondered why anyone would pitch merging services to teens.

On the screen, an attractive man spoke about “what Baidu-Xiaomi can do for you,” and Christine reminded herself that she had to call her mom as soon as class was over. Mom was getting worse. In the weeks after Dad died, there was so much to do. In the months after that, Mom had been focused on Janet’s mental health. But now Janet was dating that asstool Justin—and it seemed okay. Mom was drifting. Grasping. Yesterday, Mom suggested Christine could teach her. “I could do it, too. For my friends.”

Christine couldn’t believe it. “Did you forget what happened with Dad?”

“Anyone can do it,” her mom said, looking away. “If they don’t leave the room.”

Later, Christine’s mom had come knocking on her door, probably to apologize. But Christine didn’t open up. She left for class early this morning, a lump of guilt boiling in her stomach. 

When she crossed through the checkpoint and got to campus, it felt like the Land of Make-Believe. Most of the other students were just out of high school: the brightest, the richest, the best. When one of them asked Christine what prep school she’d been at, she lied and said she was from Utah.

“Oh,” a boy said, putting on a sympathetic face. “Refugee?”

She didn’t answer. She looked down at her phone and said she had to get to class. Which was true. She walked to the room, sat down, and glanced up at the professor. For a few seconds, she thought she was hallucinating. It must be someone else. Some other man with a perfectly white circle on the left cheek of his chestnut-colored beard. 

“Good morning, Christine,” he said, and she startled. But then she saw he was reading off his screen, which recognized each of them in turn. “Good morning, Bassem,” he’d said. “Good of you to join us.”

Now, the advertisement ended.

“That’s enough getting-to-know-you,” the professor said sharply, as if they’d been wasting his time. “For the rest of today, we’ll talk about who’s who in a hospice system. We’ll start with the private hospice, since that’s where most of you will end up. Some of you will work at hospitals, of course. Some of you will emigrate. A few will go rogue. Christine, for instance.”

She didn’t react, and the professor’s face went momentarily blank, as though even he knew he’d crossed a line. He launched into a talk about typical staffing structures at a mid-level private hospice. Christine was surprised that they would cover this in a university lecture. This was the sort of thing she could cram on her own. 

Christine’s dad had been at a public-private facility. By using his savings, they had managed to pay for a single room. They needed that room “for your little daddy-daughter voodoo,” Janet had said, bitterly.

Where had Janet gone on that last afternoon? It was a question that still needled Christine. “What difference does it make?” Janet had shouted. “You guys didn’t care about me. I went out all the time and nobody cared. You were his princess. You were the one he needed.”

But Christine wasn’t there when she was needed. She was looking for Janet. At first, she only looked around the nearest nursing station. Kept one eye on her dad’s door. Anyone seen my sister Janet? The nurses shook their heads, eyes fixed on their screens. She walked down the eastern hallway, and quickened her pace down another, putting her head into the shabby waiting rooms, the self-serve cafeteria, the broken-down rec room where people went to smoke. She couldn’t find Janet anywhere. After too much time had passed, she spun around and raced, slippers flapping, back to Room 2-7-7.

Mom and Janet were there, arguing. By the time Christine was at her dad’s sidebreath heavingtrying to push the fishing rod into his loose grip, his last sensory system had let go. The brain was out on its own, cast off like a boat pushed to sea. There was nothing she could do to reach him.

“If you do this right,” the professor said, kicking at something invisible on the floor, “then all of you will make a very good living.”

Christine grasped at the rope of his words—and held on.