I put off learning to drive until I was twenty-three. I put off learning to drive until I was twenty-three because, having often spent car rides in the passenger seat, and having often been overcome by a petrifying fear, a fear ignited by the thought of me in the driver’s seat and controlling the wheel, the thought of me swerving off the road and over the curb and onto the bordering sidewalk and running over the sidewalk walkers, I simply assumed that I was not fit for driving. That I did not possess the constitution of one able to keep concentration alert behind the wheel. That I would probably kill myself and endanger the lives of others.
Joan Didion was ten years old when she, along with so many others, had to learn how to survive, and practice surviving, the atomic bomb: “cover my eyes and my brain stem and crouch beneath my desk during atomic-bomb drills.” Understandably, all this practicing, all the rhetoric of the day — ubiquitous talk of the mighty power of the bomb, the searing words painting vivid images singeing at the edges of a molten dystopian world, words saying that it would happen here, indeed it must if we are rehearsing surviving it — all the atomic and taut and charged milieu bred anticipation, anticipation of something that got to be seen as inevitable on account of this perennial talk, this atomic and taut and charged milieu.
Destruction came to be seen by young Didion as inevitable, so much so that its unhappening was not even envisaged, there was no question of its (death by atomic bomb) not coming. Sooner rather than later young Didion felt she would “endure the moment of its happening: first the blinding white light, which appeared in my imagination as a negative photographic image, then the waves of heat, the sound, and, finally, death, instant or prolonged, depending inflexibly on where one was caught in the scale of concentric circles we all imagined pulsing out from ground zero.” It was not until she completed her undergraduate degree at Berkeley and moved to New York — until she moved away from California and the university that had helped to build the atomic bomb that ended World War II — it was not until some time after this that Didion found herself not expecting the blinding white of the light of the explosion of the atomic bomb, found herself not expecting this death. And after she realized she no longer harboured this expectation, after analyzing this lack that had opened up in her, she concluded that “the expectation had probably been one of those ways in which children deal with mortality, learn to juggle the idea that life will end as surely as it began, to perform in the face of definite annihilation.”
Didion concluded that the white light, the expectation of this particular death, allowed for the conceptualization of and coming to terms with death in general in a young mind — in the way that a death in the family equips parents with an example to easily confront children with mortality. The white light’s acceptance into young Didion’s scheme of things allowed her to ideologically assimilate into herself, to swallow easily, the temporality of self. Everybody dies. Everybody poops.
But during the time this very material and specific expectation remained with young Didion, before her move to New York, she got shit done. She studied, she went to Berkeley, she won the Vogue competition that took her to New York. All in face of her definite annihilation. All in face of the very real possibility of at any moment needing to delve into that compartment of her brain that housed the survival tactics. Cover my eyes and my brain stem and crouch beneath my desk. Joan Didion performed in the face of definite annihilation, because what else could she do?
When I was twelve I began to think about the future. When I was twelve I began to imagine my future. I imagined high school. I imagined graduating high school. I imagined going to university. But my imagination, when I was twelve, stopped its imagining, ceased its projection of a world for me, at the age of nineteen. When I was twelve I thought that I would be dead by nineteen.
I didn’t know why or how I would be dead. I simply took it for granted that I would be dead and my imagination refused to provide a scheme for me after the age of nineteen. A scheme, a way of life. Beyond nineteen was a vast whiteness, a vast emptiness. A void. It would be death, surely, certainly.
And despite it all — despite my conviction that I would be dead, despite this unwavering white hot void that my imagination exploded beyond nineteen, this emptiness — I lived. Despite what I imagined for my future at twelve, I performed. The whiteness didn’t loom ominously as a thunderhead. It was simply there. I expected it, I neared it. I performed in the face of my own brand of definite annihilation. I went to school. I went to high school. I went to University.
And then I got to twenty. And I found myself alive.
I was in the dead zone at twenty, the buzzing whiteness that I never bothered to prepare anything for, the void without pragmatic, paradigmatic architecture. I seemed to not have grown past the child’s mechanism for assimilating death into her worldview, having presumably found it to be enough. Having presumably become contented with it.
This expectation of mine is different from Didion’s in one crucial way: it has a definite, concrete expiration date. The day I turned twenty. The day I turned twenty the expectation could no longer be rightly, logically (according to its own curious dialectic) sustained. Didion grew out of her expectation. I found mine frustrated.
I will die when I am nineteen. I am nineteen but I am not yet dead. Well, perhaps it will come some time within the year. I am twenty but I am not dead. Now what?
Indeed, now what?
I had performed in the face of definite — particularly definite, definite with a timestamp — annihilation, and the annihilation did not come. I had performed in the face of an expectation that was not fulfilled. Instead, I had stumbled naked and headlong into the unplanned, unmapped void. Now what?
Didion’s expectation was quashed, or rather, it dissipated, after her move from California, but in this way she surely did not come to not expect death altogether. Surely. My expectation was — more dramatically — quashed at twenty, but this does not mean that I now think myself immortal. It has become rather, for me, a matter of actively — with thoughts and physical performances — keeping myself alive. Of moving, of negotiating my way through this perilous, precarious white space — and I must move because I am in it — in such a way as to ward off death, at least for a moment longer. I no longer expect death as an immediate inevitability, rather I see it as something that will come, but also as something that I must, if I can, adjourn until another time. Shelve it and perform not facing it, but with my eyes lowered, while it stubbornly stares down at me. It expects me, not I it. At least for now.
My scheme of things, my worldview, metamorphoses to accommodate my current state of affairs.
From defiantly performing in the face of death, we have grown. And it seems that, as we grow older and leave behind the child’s mentality, we need to forget about death for some time yet. Having performed with its expectation, having accumulated a life in death’s face, we don’t want to give it, all this life, up immediately. Do we?
And so, with all our life, we some of us forget about death. We choose not to see it, to actively expect it as we once did. We try to take care of ourselves, we go to doctors, we try to eat healthy, drink lots of water and green tea, we exercise, we try to read more, breathe more — in deeply, out deeply. We try to ignore death.
We perform in the face of a definite annihilation that we try with all our might to ignore.
Last month I found myself swerving in my lane. Last month I found myself swerving in my lane as I drove because I became, for a split second, enamoured of a dog being walked on the sidewalk. I didn’t run the car over the curb and onto the sidewalk. I straightened myself out. I took a deep breath. I went on.
Alisha Mughal was born in Pakistan and grew up in Ontario, Canada, where she still resides. She has a BA in Philosophy from the University of Toronto, and has had work appear previously in Eunoia Review and Noble / Gas Quarterly.