I like to think that mine has been a very safe life. I have been in three car accidents (one while in utero) and have undergone surgery once. When I was nine I used to jump 20 feet from the top of the old barn about twice a week, but my bones were young and flexible. I broke my arm at age five when a cousin kicked me off a picnic table during a game of Ninja Turtles. I have driven drunk twice. In the past week I have had around 34 alcoholic drinks—which, according to the National Institutes of Health, means I am "at-risk," though for what they don’t say—and smoked approximately 175 cigarettes. I am slightly overweight, but I am now riding my 1969 Raleigh three-speed bicycle to work and back, a round trip of some 22 miles. I suspect that in old age I shall become a vegetarian again.
I am, as I say, a health- and safety-conscious, risk-averse, methodical, punctual adult American male who has never worried in the least about dying before his time. Except for last week, when I spent just under an hour in a Toyota Camry saying Marian devotions and begging God to spare my soul, and wound up on the stoop of the rectory at a friend’s parish watching the Virgin smile at me—remote, beautiful, covered in a brilliant golden light that shone from the ingang past the stoop to the hanging leaves.
All of this happened last Friday or, as I like to think, two days after Lena Dunham, of whom I have been a fan for years, told me she loved my t-shirt. After returning from the presidential debate in St. Louis, I had been asked to go and see her at a bar five blocks away from the Beacon office. She had just finished a Facebook Live interview and was chatting about Hillary Clinton with Arlington locals at Barley Mac—whatever its name suggests, it traffics neither in hearty autumnal soups nor the amped-up versions of children’s food so beloved of people under 30 in America’s cities today—when suddenly she called out to me from across the room.
"I love your Dinosaur Jr. shirt!"
This was very flattering. It was also somewhat of a relief. Just as I had been walking out the door I decided to change out of my typical fall outfit—tweed, casual shirt, chinos, and penny loafers—into something that said, "I am still in my salad days." But I had second thoughts about this decision as soon as I entered the bar and saw around 60 serious young Clintonite professional types.
My red cardigan was probably okay, but my indie rock t-shirt had "Bernie bro" written all over it. My throwback Michigan Wolverines cap, if it did not scream "Grey Wolf," almost certainly said "Sady Doyle has me blocked on Twitter," and the two gin and tonics I guzzled during my half-hour there were enough to clue in anyone who was keeping score that I am a reactionary with a large Evelyn Waugh collection. Only two people talked to me before Lena did. The first was a Ready for Hillary organizer who insisted on taking down my phone number even after I explained to her that I am a paid-up member of the Democratic Women’s Leadership Forum. The second was a woman from CBS who asked me whether I supported Clinton.
"No, I’m definitely ‘Jill not Hill,’" I explained.
I had a very difficult time explaining to her why I was not the person she wanted to interview for her series on millennial voters going sour on Clinton.
But Lena put me immediately at ease.
"Oh, thanks," I said bashfully when she praised my shirt. "Hey, would you mind autographing my sign please?"
I’d brought with me a blue "Stronger Together" sign pilfered from the floor of the convention in Philadelphia. Lena and I shot the breeze for a few minutes about baby names—she was very enthusiastic about Thisbe and Violet—and I explained to her that my wife, a great admirer of Sen. Sanders, did not plan on voting for Hillary Clinton. Just as she had taken the novelty oversized Sharpie I’d handed her to make her mark, I chimed in with another question.
"Is it okay that we’re pro-life?" I asked.
"It’s, like, just your personal belief, right?"
"No. We definitely think abortion should be banned."
I then did my best to shed light on my dilemma. As a Catholic I cannot in good conscience vote for any candidate who advocates for infanticide, but certain aspects of Sanders’s platform, a few of which Hillary has adopted, align more closely with the Church’s social magisterium than anything the Republicans have on offer.
"Also," I continued, "my grandpa was, like, a union man and almost everybody in my family has been a Democrat for generations. They’re the party of Catholics and the working man."
She went on to praise me for making the very difficult decision of putting my daughters first.
She then made out the sign:
You are righteous
I admire your passion
But please vote for Thisbe and Violet
They need you. Love, Lena
When she finished I thanked her.
"Thank you so much for coming," she said. "It’s been eye-opening."
After paying my tab I left for Chuck E. Cheese, where I drank $4 beers and let my daughter ride the cop car and play whack-a-mole. It was a wonderful afternoon. My only regret was that I had not suggested to Lena she use a song from You’re Living All Over Me in an episode of Girls.
Two days later I woke up and remembered that I was signed up to attend an evening event called Puff, Pass, and Paint at which I would be smoking cannabis and receiving instruction in the proper use of acrylics. As a resolute foe of marijuana legalization—I once debated Mike Riggs on the subject at the headquarters of Reason when I was an intern at another magazine because I was the only person under the age of 30 in Washington, D.C., willing to make the case for what dope fiends call "prohibition"—I thought it would make a very light and amusing feature article. I have never been more wrong in my life.
After consulting various experts I have yet to make up my mind exactly what happened after I walked through the threshold of that house in Columbia Heights at 6:50 p.m. I shall therefore confine myself to the facts.
After drinking seven beers I found myself standing outside with a cigarette—would I be allowed to smoke inside at this smoking-related event? I wondered—when a woman appeared on a porch in front of me.
"Hey, are you here for class?"
"Yeah," I said.
"Oh, cool. You’re the first one here, so you can come in whenever."
After I entered the hall the woman introduced herself as Heidi and offered me a glass of wine, which I accepted. I then asked to use the bathroom. When I returned, she invited me to choose a spot at a table set for eight persons, each outfitted with an easel, a small square canvas, and various painting supplies.
"You want this?" Heidi said, pointing to a short, fat-looking vomit-green joint from which she had just taken a drag.
I hesitated. I already possessed a joint of my own, a longer and thinner one prepared by a trusted professional only an hour or so earlier. I had brought this because the guide to the event said that, due to laws prohibiting the sale of marijuana for recreational purposes in the District of Columbia, all attendees would have to bring their own smoking material.
"Sure," I said, taking a manful drag.
Then Heidi and I talked for a few minutes about my job. I said that I was a journalist and that I had come over from my office in Rosslyn.
"Who do you write for?"
"The Washington Free Beacon."
"That’s so cool," she said.
By 7:15 two of my classmates had arrived. Both turned down wine but gladly accepted a joint from Heidi.
"So we can just light up in here?" one of them asked.
Heidi nodded in the affirmative. The other new arrival asked to borrow my lighter. By this point I had smoked at least half of my joint and was experiencing what my admittedly limited experience—five times or so since college—with the drug suggested were normal symptoms. I felt relaxed and happy and could not really feel my hands, though my motor skills seemed fine. I had another puff or two and took part in a boring conversation about the differences between Denver, where Heidi also taught, and D.C.
"Out there everybody was, like, way late," she said. "Here people tend to show up on time, which is why I’m surprised not everyone is here yet."
Models, I have always found, are very helpful when you try to do something for the first time in your writing. I have not examined the works of Jack Kerouac or similar authors enough in my mature years to have a good sense of how to proceed here, however.
But here’s a go:
"Yeah, being on time for things is really important to people here," I said, except that I am fairly certain that it took me at least 30 seconds to say the word really. "That’s why I took an Uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuber here. Because I’m sooooooooooooooooooo used to covering things and not wanting to be late."
Heidi nodded. It was hard to say whether she or my classmates noticed that my casual response had roughly the duration of an early Kinks single.
I pressed on.
"I didn’t waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaant to be late, so I ended up being here early. It’s definitely a D.C. thiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing."
I suddenly became conscious of the fact that my vision was being occluded by a translucent yellow circle exactly the color of an Eggo waffle. This called to mind memories of childhood, which are usually agreeable to me. For a moment this one was. I thought of my maternal grandparents’ home, where I lived until I was two years old, and my grandfather reading the Flint Journal with his coffee.
Then I noticed that in the middle of the Eggo, hazier than the circle itself yet unmistakably there, was my face from seventh or eighth grade: thin, angular, almost starved, shoulder-length hair, Buddy Holly glasses. This face was somehow also my current face, the face that everyone who was looking at me was seeing, and feelings of awkwardness and insufficiency and metaphysical confusion and a host of other emotions and attitudes and intuitions that I had not felt in over a decade began to surge up in parts of my brain about which I had forgotten. I do not actually recall wondering whether anyone at the table would notice the pimples that part of me knew were not in fact there—but still. Something was wrong.
"Excuse me for a moment," I said, standing up.
I went outside and called my wife and told her that I had to come home.
"I don’t know what happened. I smoked something bad or I smoked too much. I don’t know but I need to come home."
I am fairly certain that it was only after I got off the phone with her that I reached the unambiguous conclusion that I was going to die.
Instinctively I lit a cigarette.
It felt as if some Tom Tancredo-supporting SPLC-denounced militia unit were firing bazookas at my chest from the inside or the Navy SEALs were using it to practice throwing some as-of-yet classified high-powered ultrasonic boomerang. I picked up my phone again and came very close to dialing 9-1-1. Instead I opened Uber and requested a car.
Then I remembered that all my things were inside. I walked in with a calm, polite, slightly saddened expression and told Heidi that I would not be able to attend class after all due to a "family emergency," in this case, my impending death.
"Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that. Let me know when you want to reschedule."
"I’ll do that."
I grabbed my bag, went outside, lit another cigarette, and paced. I was bewildered and afraid as my surroundings took on a nightmarish aspect. People were going in and out—when I think about it probably just in, but it’s hard to say—of the house and it was getting dark and there was noise on the street. I do not remember what happened before Mohammed showed up in his black Toyota Camry and I opened the door trying to look as calm and collected as possible.
"Alexandria?" he said.
Without pausing another moment I changed the destination on the Uber app to a church a few miles from my house. Then I called the parish’s after-hours line and explained that I had a spiritual emergency and needed to make a confession as soon as possible. The person to whom I spoke sounded very earnest and concerned and competent, and for a moment I felt relieved.
By this time the yellow circle had given way to a wicked-looking inky black and purple miasma. Traffic for whatever reason was much slower than I had expected it to be and when, after what seemed like half an hour, I realized that my arrival time was only a minute or two nearer, I began texting people frantically, begging for their prayers and those of Mary and my patrons St. Robert Southwell and Blessed John Henry Newman and all the saints and martyrs. Typing in this state was very difficult but still seemed preferable to making Mohammed think I was a lunatic. I was surprised at how clearly I seemed to be thinking, given the fact that I had consumed a lethal amount of cannabis and heaven knew what else. Was this modicum of rationality fleeting? Was I about to suffer irreversible brain damage? Had I suffered it already? I tried recalling some lines of poetry in order to gauge the strength of my memory.
"Her towers of fear in wreck"—What is the first line? "Her limbecks dried of poison / And the knife at her neck." Oh. "Her strong enchantments failing / Her towers of fear in wreck / Her limbecks dried of poison / And the knife at her neck / The Queen of Air of Darkness / Begins to shrill and cry / O young man, O my slayer / Tomorrow you shall d—" No, I know the rest and don’t want to go there now. Bad luck.
I suspect that some, if not all, of the above was said aloud.
"Hang on tight, buddy, I’m getting you there as fast as I can."
My vision was almost entirely gone. I could not see the front of the car or anything outside other than vaguely menacing orange and purple shadows that looked like solid polygons rather than actual observable objects. I could, however, see my phone. Eventually it rang.
"You say it’s a spiritual emergency and a medical emergency?"
I don’t remember saying that. I mean, it’s not a medical emergency in the sense that blood is pouring out of my side onto the leather in the backseat here, but—
"No, it’s not a medical emer—" Don’t say that. She’ll think it’s not urgent. "I mean, it is one. I’m not hurt. But I might not be okay. It’s not a medical emergency but I really need to say confession."
My slow, droning speech at the dinner table had been replaced by a sharp, nervous angst and, I think, a stutter that alternated with an up-tempo whine. The obvious pain in my voice, which I heard as if I were merely listening in on someone else, was embarrassing. But I could not banish it.
"So it is or isn’t a medical emergency?"
"I-i-i-it isn’t one. B-b-b-b-but I needtasayconfessionitsreallyimportantokay?"
She said a priest would be waiting for me and hung up. Once more I felt slightly better. I realized that I could see the color green again, the dark green of deciduous trees whose leaves had not yet changed. I looked at my phone. The address of the church was in the app, but where were we? I suddenly realized that Mohammed—Mohammed, whom I trusted, Mohammed, whom I was really counting on to get me through this, Mohammed!—was using his own GPS and taking me to the first destination I had entered: home.
The idea that I could tell him to turn around did not occur to me. We pulled up at my place and I grabbed my bag to get out.
"I love you," I said inadvertently. I realized as soon as the words were out that I was just saying what I usually say to my wife when she drops me off at the airport, but I saw him turn around with a look of hot fury and confusion and decided it would be better to stumble inside rather than explain my mistake.
When I walked into the living room my wife insisted I drink a glass of orange juice and try to calm down. In the bathroom I looked at the mirror and was astonished to see a beard and circular glasses—John Lennon ones, not Buddy Holly—and a rounder face that spoke of baby weight and Coors rather than of forgoing school and family meals on ethical and health grounds.
Talking with my wife made me very happy.
"You’re not going to die. You just smoked too much and you’re not used to it."
"But I—I—I—I—I told them. I told them that I was going to be there at the church and I really really really really really want to go to confession, okay?"
"Okay. Just drink your orange juice first."
"D—d—d—d—d—do you think it’s okay if I. Okay if I. Okay if I smoke another cigarette? On the one haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand," I said, laughing for the first time in what seemed like a century, "I feel like it’s not goooood. ’Cuz I’ve had so much stuff already. But I think it would make me calmer."
This was hilarious somehow.
"Honey, you can smoke as much as you want."
We went outside, my wife carrying the white video baby monitor, and I lit up and called another Uber. She reminded me that I was not, in fact, going to die.
Kingsley arrived very quickly and before I knew it I was on the sidewalk outside the parish of a friend of mine who lives nearby and with whom I had been in touch. I was alone.
This I hadn’t counted on. I walked up and down the steps of the church frantically. A cop car passed. A group of teenagers walked past me without making eye contact. All the despair came back to me and intermittently, between desperate choking drags on my American Spirits, I resumed my Marian devotions and begged God for just one last chance to make a good confession and receive absolution before my demise.
Then it occurred to me that maybe I was supposed to be at the rectory rather than the church itself. I called my friend and asked him where it was. The thought that someone might be waiting for me after all filled me with such extraordinary joy that I practically skipped up the block to the stoop and knocked at the door.
No one answered. I knocked again. I knocked probably about 50 times and got nothing. The extreme volatility of my emotions was too much and time elapsed during which I thought nothing and experienced nothing whatever while somehow managing to continue rattling off Hail Marys. It was very dark. The teenagers were gone. There was no sound at all. I thought I saw a figure in black pass by me on the sidewalk but when I looked again he or it or whatever—better, surely to say, he—was gone.
Then from behind the glass door I saw Her. It was an image of the Blessed Virgin smiling from the entryway of the rectory. I hadn’t noticed her before, but she was, I knew, the answer to my prayers.
"Can I help you?"
It was the man in black. I confess for half a moment I thought he was Lucifer in the flesh. But then I remembered how many times—10? 15?—I had petitioned St. Michael to "cast into hell Satan and all evil spirits who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls." Wherever the devil was, he wasn’t here.
This man was, of course, a figure in clerical dress. I asked whether he was the priest who was supposed to be waiting for me. He said no, but invited me in.
"I really need to make a confession, Father."
He said that was fine and we went into a sitting room, where I asked him to pray for me as I tried to make a thorough examination of conscience, which he did. Then I requested a glass of water and we got it over with. When I finished my penance, he asked me how I was getting home. I called my friend, who was already outside. He drove me to my house.
We tried to talk, and I lost nearly all power of speech. My lips felt fat and heavy, like two slugs curled up in the grass of my beard. I heard myself lisping and found this slightly funny, but I could not stop it any more than I could have banished, only half an hour or so earlier, the thought that I was surely going to die in the back seat of Mohammed’s Toyota and go straight to hell.
When I got home I lay down on the couch and listened to music until I was too tired to move. Then, with the turntable off and my laptop shut, I heard "Solsbury Hill" by Peter Gabriel, a song I have hated my entire life, note for note as if the band were five feet away from me. And I fell into a peaceful sleep.