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A Final Moment in the Spotlight

Two days ago, I took my last breath.

Some people say that when you die, you enter an eternal sleep. But I didn’t feel asleep at all. I was restless. You know the feeling you get at work and, although you’ve finished all of your tasks for the day, you still want to wait a bit longer so that you can leave at five o’clock and not four forty-two? So, instead of leaving early and beating traffic, you sit at your desk and scroll through Facebook until you have seen everything there is to see on your newsfeed. Twice.

Four forty-seven.

You watch the clock move as if a sloth were working the wheels and all you want to do is talk to someone and socialize. You peek over the top of your cubicle and most people seem to be hard at work. You squint and search for signs of movement in the break room. Nothing. Even worse, it looks like the coffee pot is empty, so there is absolutely no point in entering unless you want to be responsible for brewing a new pot.

Maybe Emily is free.

You quickly glance over to her cubicle. Lately, she has been spending her days scrolling through wedding blogs and Pinterest mason jar centerpiece DIYs. But then you see that her chair is vacant and you remember that she left early today for a dress fitting. You slump back in your seat and glance at the clock.

Four forty-nine.

That is how death felt. I was alone, restless, and only mildly entertained by things. For the past few days, watching my friends and family had been like watching a bad Lifetime movie that wouldn’t end. But in a sense, it was kind of flattering.

Everyone I had ever known suddenly had me on their mind. People searched through my old Facebook posts and read my statuses in a whole new light. My words, which were mostly uninspired and mundane, suddenly gained an inexplicable profundity. Four people shared a post I had made three years ago. It said, “Julie might be the first one in our friend group to get married, but according to a Buzzfeed quiz, I’ll be the first to die. So take that, Julie!” One of the sharers even captioned the post with, “It’s as if she knew…” If anything, these posts should have given folks a newfound trust in Buzzfeed quizzes, but instead they began to preach my own clairvoyance.

My dad shared a photo of me from when I was seven. I was on a stage in front of a large crowd, smiling in the spotlight. I remembered that day well. My dad had decided not to take me to school, and we drove to a magic show instead.

Magic Dan asked for a volunteer from the crowd, and I pulled on my dad’s arm with all my weight, urging him to lift me so that I could catch the magician’s attention. With one swoop, my dad scooped me up onto his shoulders. I frantically waved my hands in the air, and the magician selected me.

I stepped onto the stage and turned to face the audience. In a flash I was blinded by the bright, burning spotlight. But when my eyes adjusted, I saw a sea of faces looking right at me, smiling. I had goosebumps on my arms and butterflies in my stomach, it was exhilarating. I soaked in the warmth of the floodlights.

“What’s your name, little lady?” The magician asked me.

“Pearl. But I’m not little,” I retorted, “I’m pretty chubby, actually. At least that’s what everyone says.” The audience laughed and I perked up. They thought I was funny. I liked saying things that shocked people. Even at seven I had perfect comedic timing. I was too young to feel self-conscious about my weight, and I wasn’t fat enough for people to actually feel bad for me.

My dad encouraged my humor because he thought that the worst thing anyone could be was boring. I think that’s why he loved Mom so much. She was a journalist for a travel magazine, and she always came home with crazy stories from her adventures. They met in Germany, where my dad was from. My mom was only there for a month, but that was plenty of time for them to fall in love. She and my father met on a train. A year later, Dad was in Houston, asking my grandpa for his blessing. Three years later, they had me. I was their only child.

They say that being an only child inflates your ego. It’s true. But it’s not as bad as it seems. Having self-confidence does not make you less generous or caring. In my opinion, it actually makes you work harder to please others. People with low self-esteem spend too much time worrying about themselves. I don’t waste time staring at my flaws in the mirror because I’d rather be entertaining others. The best way to get people to like you is by making them laugh. Yes, my motives can be self-centered, but I’m sure even Mother Teresa had an agenda.

Many of my closest friends and family members had come into town for my funeral. Today was my wake, and my parents had invited the guests over to their home afterwards for a reception. I sat in the living room with my friends. I had not visited home in a few months, and was surprised to see that the room looked different. My parents had gotten a new rug, and the couch no longer faced the fireplace. Instead, it was off to the side against the window. The change opened up the space more, but it also made the room less cozy. I wondered whether the couch’s new home was permanent, or only to accommodate the recent influx of visitors.

I also noticed that my college graduation portrait now sat on the fireplace mantel next to our family portrait. This picture used to be in my father’s study. Empty alcohol bottles were scattered about the coffee table, accompanied by tissue boxes and discarded paper plates. Chairs had been pulled in from the dining room, and my friends were gathered around, telling stories about all of the fun times they’d had with me. I was having such a good time, I almost forgot I was dead.

Julie, my college roommate, was telling everyone about the time I burned popcorn in the dorm microwave during our sophomore year. It had been 2:30am on a school night, and the fire alarm went off. The whole dorm got evacuated.

“You would think she wouldn’t want anyone to know that it was her fault,” Julie said, sniffling and giggling all at once. “But nope, she had no shame about it. As we all waited outside for the campus security to turn the alarm off, Pearl walked around with the incriminating bag of charred popcorn, offering it to everyone. She thought it was hilarious!”

Everyone laughed nostalgically at the thought. It was a good story, and Julie told it well. Although, if I had been telling the story, I would have mentioned how I also threw burnt popcorn pieces at anyone who complained about the alarm. In my opinion, that was the best part.

Julie was always more of an introvert. She was usually very shy around strangers, but the second she got more comfortable with someone she would completely open up. For me, it took her a month to get comfortable, and then our room became the loudest in our hall. We were always laughing and gossiping. She moved back home to New York after graduation, and I had not seen her since. We had planned to reunite last summer, but plans fell through for reasons I don’t even remember. We postponed the reunion for this summer, never even considering the possibility that one of us could die before spring.

After Julie’s story, everyone sat still, looking at the photo of me on the mantelpiece. Was that really the best portrait they had of me? Senior year of college was not the best time for my skin. Was this the photo they would use for my funeral tomorrow? It would be the first and only time that everyone I loved would gather in the same place at the same time. They’d pay their respects to Pearl Queen-of-the-Acne-Scars Waters, and then they would disperse, returning to their own lives, and eventually forgetting about me.

I shook away the thought.

My dad’s parents were staying in the guest room for the week. They landed last night after a grueling flight. The last time they came to the States was for my college graduation. I was hoping their next visit would be for my wedding.

My mother’s parents were also here. My mother and both of my grandmothers were going back and forth from the kitchen, clearing trash and re-stocking the snacks; preoccupying themselves with typical hostess duties. My dad was with my grandfathers in the dining room. They spoke in hushed tones, sipping on scotch.

“I remember,” my Dad started, “I once told Pearl that a parent’s only job was to make sure that their kids outlived them.…” I left the room before he could finish. It hurt too much to listen to my father struggle to suppress the quivering in the back of his throat.

“I have a good story,” Sam announced with a mischievous grin, breaking the silence. Sam and I used to date before I realized how boring he was. I hadn’t seen him in over a year. He still had his boyish charm: disheveled hair and dimples. We dated for less than a year, but were neighbors since childhood. Our breakup was mutual, yet there was still a lingering resentment between us that we could never cure while I was alive.

Sam told a story from one of our first dates. I remembered it well. We were trying to cook a meal together, but Sam refused to follow the recipe, so it went all wrong.

“We wanted to make a simple vegetable Wellington. This was during Pearl’s vegetarian phase,” Sam chuckled, and many others rolled their eyes in agreement. “She really wanted to replicate a recipe that she had at our friend Ally’s Sweet Sixteen. Apparently this Wellington changed her life. So she tracked down the caterer for the recipe. But, I kid you not, it was in another language, so it was completely useless!”

That was a lie. It was not in another language. Some of the ingredients had foreign-sounding names, that’s all. I wanted to cut in and correct him. That’s what I usually would have done. Sam had a habit of being wrong. It was one of his least attractive traits. The worst part was that everyone believed him. They didn’t have me to tell them otherwise, so they took his word for it. They really thought I would be silly enough to try to follow a recipe that was in a language I couldn’t understand.

“ there we were, with the saddest excuse for Wellington ever, and Pearl had the nerve to blame me! Like I should have known the proportions were all off. So then I decided we just order pizza, and it ended up being a pretty great night.”

Again, he was wrong. Yes, I was mad at him, but not just because he put in the wrong proportions. Sure, that annoyed me; but it didn’t anger me. What got me mad was the fact that he didn’t want to wait for the frozen vegetables to thaw, so nothing was cooked properly. I was the one who decided to order pizza while he went and sat on the couch to watch a Rockets game. It was an awful date, and I almost refused to go on another one with him.

Many people around the room began to laugh at the story, but I noticed a few people force smiles. Sarah Thomas looked particularly uncomfortable with his rendition of the tale. She rose from the couch and made her way toward the food table. I’ve always adored Sarah. We went to the same college, but we did not become close until we studied abroad together in Paris.

She had a sophisticated confidence to her that I always admired. She was always the best at giving advice because she could look at a situation almost completely objectively. I once told her this, and she explained it was because she was heartless. She worried she could never get emotionally attached to anything. I remember her explain that she chose to study abroad in Paris because she thought that the city of love would help her feel something, and cure her of her emotionless void. She graduated at the top of our class, and she was currently in medical school, studying to be a surgeon.

She grabbed a plate and reached for the fruit slices.

She reached for the knife near the Nutella and paused. I was with Sarah when she had her first Nutella back when we were abroad. She had always thought she would hate it because she hated peanut butter. I practically force-fed it to her. She almost screamed with anger, and rushed to the sink to spit it out and rinse her mouth. But, when she sat back down the flavor still lingered on her tongue, and she liked it. She wouldn’t admit it to me though. For a week I watched as Nutella slowly began to disappear from my jar without my ever touching it. I finally caught her in the act, brown teeth and all, and we both could not stop laughing. But she wasn’t laughing now. There was no sign of a smile on her face. She put down her plate, turned away from the Nutella, and went to the restroom.

Back in the living room, Emily was telling everyone about the time I performed stand up at a company party and had the whole crowd roaring with laughter.

“She was great at commanding attention,” Emily sighed.

“She loved attention,” Sam agreed, with a smug grin. I wanted to strangle him. But no one came to my rescue.

Sarah returned from the restroom. Her eyes were red and puffy, and she was clutching a tissue in her left hand. She returned to a spot on the couch in between Rachel, our college friend, and Emily. Rachel rubbed Sarah’s back and rested her head sympathetically on Sarah’s shoulder.

I wanted someone to tell a story about my generosity. Maybe Sarah could talk about the time I gave her a giant tub of Nutella last Christmas, or Julie could mention the time we volunteered at a retirement home. I held Rachel’s hair back countless times in college, and I even cleaned up after she puked all over a dorm lounge on her 21st. But I knew Rachel would not tell that story. It made her look bad, and, from the way she and Sam kept exchanging glances, I don’t think she wanted to be seen in that light.

Justin, another college friend, told a story that I had heard him tell before. It had something to do with a late night trip to McDonald’s that turned into a high speed cop chase. Unfortunately, I don’t think Justin realized that I was not there during any of this. He probably had me confused with Amanda, another friend of his who had the same coloring as me. People would mistake me for her occasionally back in school.

One time, I was hanging out at a party with Justin when a random guy approached us and confessed to having feelings for me. But, when he took a closer look at me, he shook his head and said, “Wait, never mind. I thought you were Amanda!” Justin and I both cracked up. I wish he had told that story instead. It was funny, and I was actually there for it.

After Justin’s tale, Sarah finally spoke up.

Thank goodness.

“Did you guys know,” Sarah began, “that I introduced Pearl to Nutella?”

I’m sorry, what?

She could not be serious.

She completely switched our roles in the story, ending it with her discovery of me, brown teeth and all. It baffled me that she could be so mistaken. Did she tell it wrong on purpose?

The stories continued, and with each new account of my life, I began to notice missing details and errors. I was always the storyteller among my friends. They usually relied on me when we were making small talk at parties. I could remember small details that most people overlooked. Sometimes, I could quote a conversation almost verbatim. But I always assumed that my friends would be able to tell our stories the same way I did, especially when it came to stories that they had heard me tell countless times before. But they were incapable of getting the details right. And it was those tiny, seemingly insignificant details that hung on the tip of my tongue, unable to escape my silent prison, as I listened to insufficient narratives of my story.

Is this what happens when you die? Your life is retold with innumerable inaccuracies, and you have no way of defending yourself? I should have written a journal. Then I wouldn’t have to deal with everyone rewriting my life. I once had a diary when I was little. But I only ever wrote about the boys I liked and the friends who annoyed me. When I would eventually stop liking those boys, and start reconciling with those friends, I would rip the pages out. Eventually the diary was just binding and shredded remnants of pages, so I tossed it.

I thought about tomorrow’s funeral. How many other stories would be told incorrectly? The thought of sitting through any more of this was unbearable. This was it. My life was over, and the only people left to tell my story could not get things right.

This all felt so surreal. My death was unexpected and inconvenient, plaguing me with so many unfinished tasks and regrets. I had projects to complete at work, including an ad campaign for a new client that I was really excited about. It would have revolutionized the toothpaste market. I was also supposed to be a bridesmaid in Emily’s wedding. I had to go to that wedding. I had already purchased the dress, and all sales were final. What would they do with that dress? Would she replace me as a bridesmaid? If Emily let Katie take my place I would be pissed. She knew how much Katie annoyed me.

One time, Katie stole one of my ideas at work and pitched it as her own. It was an idea for television ad for cat litter that I mentioned during a brainstorming session with her. Two kittens would be playing in the litter box as if it were a sandbox. They would make a sandcastle, and the caption would be “Soft Paws: Litter fit for a King.” Yes, it was a horrible idea, and I had abandoned it the moment I heard myself say it aloud. But three weeks later, Katie pitched that idea as her own during a staff meeting, and I was livid. The worst part was that our boss liked it better than any of the ideas that I had pitched that day.

I remember turning to Emily and whispering, “This is a litter-al cat-astrophe.”

“She’s gotta be kitten me. I’m feline very angry for you,” Emily responded with a giggle.

Emily simply could not let Katie take my place. It would be a dishonor to my memory.

I had also just told the Anderson family I would watch their dog, Felix, while they were away. If I was dead then who was watching him? I hated the thought of disappointing the Andersons. Last week I purchased a new flavor of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream that I was saving for a special day. I would never get to taste it.

Could I really die with so many loose ends? How could my life stop so suddenly? I hadn’t even made my bed that morning. Is this how people would remember me? With an unmade bed, unwashed clothes lying about my room, grimy dishes in my kitchen sink, and knotted hair in my shower drain. I wasn’t usually a messy person. I had been in a hurry that morning. I was more stressed than usual. I was too busy, and I wasn’t expecting company, so I let things slide.

My parents walked into the living room and announced that they would be heading to bed, but everyone was welcome to stay and see themselves out. My mother’s parents had left not too long ago, and my father’s parents were already in bed.

My mother was holding a scrapbook of me against her chest. Her grip was tight, and the skin around her fingernails was cracked and bleeding due to a nervous habit that she’d never been able to break.

My dad was painful to look at. He had always been full of enthusiasm when I was alive. His smile would stretch across his entire face, and his big teeth made him look like Goofy. I always wanted to giggle at the sight. But here he was, lips quivering as he hid behind my mother. He was supposed to be the strong one. Isn’t that how it goes?

I wondered if he was thinking about our last moment together.

It was in his eyes that I saw my death. I saw my reflection, the wide-eyed horror on my face, my frazzled hair, and the headlights of a semi truck flooding through my window, giving me my final moment in the spotlight.

My father looked over to the side of the room where I stood. He seemed to be looking right at me. Could he see me? I gave him a smile, just in case he did. I wanted him to know that I forgave him. He turned his eyes back to my mother without a wince.

It hurt my heart to see their pain. I could only imagine what they would be feeling tomorrow. It was then that I decided I should not go to the funeral. I was not invited. Funerals were meant for the living. Tonight would be my last night here.

My parents went upstairs, and my friends began to talk again, this time in whispers. They were no longer telling stories about me, and I was actually grateful. Rachel and Sam grabbed two beers and went outside to the back to do God-knows-what. Emily began to talk to Sarah about her struggles with booking a good band for the wedding. The focus was away from me now, and I was relieved.

I was gone, and my friends had already unknowingly distorted my life and replaced me with a Pearl Waters that I barely recognized. I could not stay here any longer. I thought I could wait for my funeral, or at least until the next episode of The Walking Dead. But it wasn’t worth it.

It was time to go.

I wish I could blame my friends for ruining my memory, but it was not their fault. It was fate’s. I died too young, and no one was prepared to tell my story. Not only that, but I hadn’t even left them much of a story to tell. Maybe it was for the best. Could I really take eighty more years of scanning through newsfeeds and waiting for what comes next?

If one were to measure my life in time, it would seem too short. So I would measure my life in applause, laughter, heavy sighs, gentle kisses, warm embraces, timeless daydreams, and sweet melodies hummed softly under my breath during cool showers. I drifted away towards the great beyond and the twinkling whispers of the stars reassured me that something was waiting for me on the other side.

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