Another Story About the End of the World
The world was set to end on December 17th. We knew because they announced it several different times on several different television channels, meaning it must be true. I marked the date carefully on a small calendar we kept next to the coffee machine. “WORLD ENDS,” I wrote in my thin handwriting. We decided, all in all, that it was maybe even a bit lucky the world was ending on that particular date, as Marcia’s wedding was scheduled for the next day. Marcia was your cousin, the one that always smelled of lice conditioner and squeezed too hard on hugs. Her wedding would be an expensive, exhausting requirement to attend if circumstances were normal. However, as circumstances were anything but that, I quickly wrote her a note explaining that we wouldn’t be attending the nuptials, what with the world ending and all. She responded with a long, sympathetic letter. “We completely understand.” The world was ending so everything was understandable.
The world was set to end in December, but it was still mid-August. Kids were off school, the beaches were open, lemonade stands popped up on every corner. Everyone knew the world was going to end in just a few months, but it certainly didn’t feel that way. In fact, we went entire days without even remembering what was in store. The realization would come in sporadic bursts-- I would wonder at what would become of our valuables when our community was ravaged by post-apocalyptic mayhem while you applied sunscreen to my back. You would muse about how we should start stockpiling canned foods while we perused the farmer’s market.
The imminent devastation seemed separate from us, like the plot of a movie we were only half-watching. It was like preparing for a vacation that wasn’t quite real-- we all knew we should be packing, but it was so much easier to put it off.
The fall brought fear. While the summer was defined by a willful ignorance of our given situation, the fall was filled with obsessive and frantic dread. Suddenly, every meeting meant something, every person you decided to spend time with was an outstanding vote of confidence. A “see you later” from someone you didn’t particularly want to care for was more than a promise, it was a threat. Even so, the disaster was still distant. There was a lazy sense of urgency embedded in every interaction, conversation, and occasion, but we still have the privilege of ignorance.
Stores were sometimes open, sometimes closed. It depended on the mood of the shopkeeper. Same with schools-- many teachers vacated their desks and some parents extracted their children from their studies. For others, impending doom was an educational reawakening. Seventy year-olds sat in class next to seventh graders, scribbling furiously in their notebooks about prime numbers and factorials. High-ranking but retired professors at formerly-prestigious schools gave lectures in musty school auditoriums to packed listeners, ready to extend their knowledge before they turned to nothing. To go to school was to attend an academic circus of sorts, although it was unclear who was the ringleader and who was the monkey.
There would be a time for chaos and stress, for destruction and breakdown, for crying and pleading and suffering and ending. The fall was not that time. Instead, in the autumn, we clung to what we knew. Casual relationships quickly became steadfast. Children called up parents they hadn’t spoken to for years due to long-forgotten grudges from stale arguments. Writers finished their moldy manuscripts. Tenants who lived for years in apartments with filled moving boxes finally unpacked. Everybody who started a puzzle, finished it.
The fall was long. The fall was unsure. The fall was nervous. The fall was anticipatory. The fall was the moment between jumping off of the diving board and hitting the water’s edge. The fall was the silence before receiving a well thought-out answer to an important question. The fall was a smoldering cigarette between shaking teeth.
The fall did not prepare us for the winter.
Reality came in with the cold. Gone were the days of purposeful ignorance. November and December were a wave goodbye to our casual attitude towards our inevitable and (presumably) violent demise. We finally decided what was important and what was not.
After the first snow in November, you and I sat down at our dining room table and made lists. It started off easy: where we wanted to make final dinner reservations, which movies we were going to make a point to see, any final travel destinations. We’d both quit our jobs months ago, as we hated them and money had no worth in our free-falling world. We could finally do all the things we’d always been too busy to do. But, given the opportunity to live out our wildest dreams, we seemed to forget them.
“Didn’t you want to go to New Zealand at one point?” I asked, scratching my head as I stared at our empty page devoid of exciting travel destinations. “Do you still want to do that?”
“Not really.” You shrugged. “I think I only wanted to go for the pictures. So our friends would be jealous.”
Friends. That was the difficult part. After deciding on all of the things we wanted to do, we suddenly had to pick what we would permanently cut out. We blacklisted foods, television programs, particular streets, sex positions, topics of conversation, and people. We decided we wouldn’t go home for Thanksgiving; we didn’t love our families enough for that. We wouldn’t have dinner with that one couple because they were vegetarian, we wouldn't bother contacting anyone we knew for under five years, and we wouldn’t waste our time with any friends who had children.
Our list of acceptable people was smaller than we expected. Some who made the cut ignored our calls and invitations for dinner, leading us to believe that we’d been placed on similar blacklists. The dinners we did attend were awkward and ultra-quiet. The self-aware finality put pressure on every interaction, rendering them hollow. By the end of December, it was clear that the connection between you and I was the only solid thing we had left.
The day was December 17th and the world was going to end. Everyone made fantastic plans for how they were going to spend the last day ever on Earth, but no one followed through. Several of our friends sent out invitations for End of the World parties. Guests bought outfits for the events, but no one put them on. The hosts ordered food, but didn’t prepare it. No one came and no one expected them to. Before, it was the act of planning that mattered. Now that the time had finally come, nothing mattered anymore-- not when the world was about to end.
You and I spent the day eating expired soup and watching reruns on TV. At 8 o’clock you looked at me, almost surprised to see that I was there. You cleared your throat and suggested we do something.
“What do you want to do?” I asked.
We decided to take a walk. We walked outside as we were, in our pajamas, despite the fact that it was cold and snowy and our clothes were dirty. We went outside and started walking. We walked and walked, past houses where we used to live, past parks where we used to play, past stores where we used to shop. We walked past the Italian dessert bar where you found out your grandmother was dead, we walked past the ice cream store that always gave me a free scoop, we walked past that one place where you sideswiped the woman who ended up suing you for damages you did not create. We walked past the bar where we first met, the curb where we first kissed, the parking lot where you asked me to move in with you, the restaurant where you proposed, and the church where we were married. We walked past a house where we once got so drunk we had to abandon our cars for the night and take the long walk home. We walked past the public library we’d never visited, the small coffee shops we used to frequent, and the movie theater where we wasted our weekends. We walked and we walked and we saw everything there was to see, but we never stopped. We kept walking.
As we walked, people began to join us. Your friends and my friends and our friends. My teacher from 2nd grade and the kids you used to babysit and the first person I ever loved enough to drive away. We were joined by your dad’s chiropractor and the guy at the Pet store who sold us a fish that died on the drive home and a man who mugged me while I was vacationing in Concordia. The women from your mom’s book club and the authors who wrote the books and the publishers who printed them. Everyone we’d ever met and everyone they’d ever met and everyone else in between flooded the streets. Nobody spoke. Nobody laughed or cried or said “Excuse me” when they accidentally stepped on the back of the shoe belonging to the person in front of them. In deafening silence, we simply walked. Eventually, we returned to our house. We stopped walking.
At home, everything was the same. The lights were still on, the TV was still flickering, and the cat was still mewing quietly by the door. We didn’t turn off the lights, we didn’t mute the TV, and we didn’t feed the cat. We climbed into bed and stared at the ceiling for the last time.
“Should we have sex or something?” You asked.
I paused. “To be perfectly honest, I’m sort of tried from the walk.”
You barely hid a sigh of relief. “Me too.” We stared for a few more moments. The air should have been pregnant with last moment confessions, tears of regret, and fervent exclamations of undying love. Given the opportunity, we couldn’t bring ourselves to do it. I listened to a clock tick downstairs.
You broke the silence. “Could you give me more blanket? It’s cold and you’re hogging it.”
“Oh. Yeah. Sorry.”
Presumably, those were the last words we would ever speak to one another.
We woke up on December 18th. The world was still there. We closed our eyes and opened them a few times in a row, just to make sure we weren’t imagining it.
You got up, took off your clothes, made your way into the bathroom for a shower. I clunked downstairs and stared at the yard. In the brightness of the kitchen, I clenched and unclenched my hands a few times-- my appendages felt like they were phantom limbs. Everything was the same, but the sameness felt different. I turned on the coffee machine. A few moments later, you came down in your suit.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Marcia’s wedding,” you said plainly. “There’s no reason not to go now. We have to leave in fifteen minutes if we’re going to make it.”
I went upstairs and fixed my hair. I put on a dress that scratched at my sides and shoes that blistered my feet.
You drove slowly. You turned on your blinker. You stopped at red lights. You waved for pedestrians to go ahead and cross at stop signs. When we got to the church, everybody was there. We made small talk with your aunts. We ate overcooked cream puffs at the reception. We danced to the songs we hated and laughed at the toasts even though we did not understand the jokes.
Life went on, the same as before.
Claire Greising is a freshman at New York University. She spends most of her time reading good books, watching bad TV, and crying in elevators.