Thursday, July 5, 2007

You Kill Me, or Do You Really?: A Dispatch from Death's Door

A column:

This was it: the pitch-black stillness of the desert, tent whining in the wind, coyotes howling from the mountains. I was going to die.

My girlfriend and I lay on the cold, hard mats of the tent, a brittle couple's squabble leaving us drying our tears in the darkness, cocooned by the snores and rustles of fifty sleeping college students. We were on a ten-day group trip to Israel, and this was our one night on the heels of Mt. Masada, in the sands of the Bedouin desert.

It was well past midnight when a small purple light blinked over my face. A shadowy figure loomed with a flipped-open cell phone, but my eyes were drawn to his rifle, holstered and gleaming at his side. "Vut bus are you?" he huffed, voice clear and piercing through the tent's silence. My girlfriend looked at me to answer, but I froze. Literally. I could not move. "Why do you want to know?" she demanded.

This shadowy figure was a terrorist, and he had opened his phone to capture our terrified voices and broadcast them on Al Jazeera. I knew this to be the case, knew it to the core of my being. We would say our bus was "577" and then he would shoot us dead while everyone around us slept. He had planned it perfectly, waiting to enter our camp under the blanket of night, when our Israeli security guards had disappeared into another tent to guzzle beer and party, completely unaware of the hyper-real moment of this stranger, his rifle, his cell phone, and his questions.

"Vut bus are you?" he repeated in the same monotone. I waited for the cliche life-flashing -before-my-eyes images, but they didn't come. All that came was the overwhelming feeling of a life suspended in the air, like particles, like a pulse. Thump, thump, thump. "We're Bus 577, why do you want to know?" she said, her voice quaking. The shadowy figure grunted an "Okay" and rustled away from us, his purple light dying when his phone clapped shut.

As it turns out, he was an Israeli security guard after all, one we did not recognize, one who was looking for his group, Bus 588.

So I wasn't going to die. Oops.

"Too much FoxNews, man," my friend Chris told me, after I'd come back to the states and recounted the story. "You were paranoid."

Maybe he was right. Why had I been so quick and so sure in concluding that my life was in danger? Was it because of how the desert, the cold, the darkness, and the gun had synchronized at the perfect time, scaring the wits out of me? Or was that moment exacerbated by a knowledge far more typical, the knowledge that, well, any breath might be my last.

I don't mean to sound like a furrowed-brow teenager with black eyeliner, for this is no doomsday message. The fact is, we don't know. The next time we brake for a red light, the car behind us could smash into our bumper, sending us flailing into the busy intersection. We don't know. The little kid in the subway, walking a little too close to the edge of the railroad tracks? We don't know. This not-knowing is always there, hanging over us like a faint mist.

And so we laugh at death. And you know what? That's not such a bad solution. In a world with war, genocide, disease, and a million little disasters, we need a way in which to twist its reality into a joke we can swallow. That's why the "Hostel" films, notorious for their centerpiece scenes of torture bloodbaths, can collectively gross more than $60 million in theaters. That's why the biggest question throughout the eight-year run of The Sopranos was: who's going to die this week?

The truth is, we want to flirt with death as long as it's safely behind a glass wall. We want to tap the glass and smile, feeling its fangs inches away but not close enough to bite us. Watching other people die fictitiously, rather than making us feel more vulnerable, makes us feel stronger and maybe even invincible. We're not on screen, dodging gunfire or sharpened knives. We're plopped onto our sofas. Suddenly that whole not-knowing? It doesn’t seem so scary.

I should have said something to the shadowy figure with the rifle. I chickened out, and for it I was rightfully and eloquently called a "pussy." Fair enough. But next time I'll be brave. I'll stand tall.

Or I'll just wish I was at the movies.

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