RIP Willis Paulsen by Andrew Lipstein
Though there should be, there is no soundtrack underneath these words. They exist only as they are, next to each other, not touching. They will be printed on two eight-and-a-half pieces of paper, double-sided, and placed in your casket. They contain everything I know about you.
Eight minutes before you died I stood over your gurney and watched your pupils dilate and constrict at a rate of one cycle per second, an image that should have been shocking but wasn’t. As I stood there looking down, as still as you, not aware of an individual doctor or nurse but a blur of white coats and the blended sound of coughs, directives and beeps, I questioned both why they let me stand there and why they didn’t move you to a bed, though I knew the answer to the latter.
Thirty-two minutes before you died, as I filled out the forms I tried my best to not look at you, struggling in the green plastic chair with wooden arms that had to be oak, slamming yourself and hugging yourself like a fucking maniac though that’s the last thing I’d label you as; I’d say you are the most sane person I have ever met. My hand was shaking, drawing unusual patterns of black ink that couldn’t have come from me. I was lying on all of these forms. You had no ID, no phone, nothing but three wrappers of Bazooka gum, a ball-point pen that I pocketed and was using, and a paperclip. A fucking paperclip. If I was making this up in third-grade I would have included a paperclip. Name, first. What could you be called. I wrote Willis and then looked at your pale, white, fucking face. I crossed out Willis and then thought how it would look to the receptionist if I had written Dennis over a crossed-out Willis and I wrote Willis above, again, instead. Willis Paulsen. Date of birth 5/11/1982. Home 314 E. Houston (hoping such that address exists). Male. Green eyes, brown hair. 5’11’’, 170 lbs. Single. A personal history of anxiety and dizziness. A family history of cancer. Allergic to dairy. I am a friend. All else unknown.
Fifty-one minutes before you died, nine minutes after I called 911, I was being shouted at in the back of an ambulance, first by an EMT, a redheaded little jackoff who you could tell by his mouth enjoyed this type of excitement and then by his boss, an older man with a moustache and a cadence to his words that made sentences sound slower than they actually were. ‘Are you from the South?’ was the only thing I put outside of my head the whole ride. Either I was in a state of shock or wanted to be to avoid questions but at one point, staring at the geography of your nose I noticed my own mouth was agape, thought to close it, and couldn’t, allowing my mouth to take in one salty drip at a time. I thought I noticed the wavering size of your pupils then but thought better of it, though every minute or two your eyes did shake violently from side to side, almost too quickly to notice, leaving you calm for the better part of a moment, until you looked to be draining your tranquility into some form of consciousness and, once gained, jolted upwards, pulling taut the straps that held you down, challenging the ceiling of the vehicle with your teeth and making the sounds of a man who’s pain not only came from a source inside but a source with agency. The ride had methodical bumps and it seemed as though we didn’t stop once, probably because we didn’t.
Sixty-one minutes before you died I held my phone up to my face, staring at the lit spaces between the 9 the 1 and the 1. My mind was baseless. So baseless I couldn’t reason for or against putting in the call. I placed the phone on the ground and waited, as if a rat would come and with his rubber precise foot make the decision for me. I looked at your eyes search under their lids and then stop and that point I’ll forever remember as the point of departure, from when you entered a territory I’d never know, the last point we had in common before I was saved from your ending.
Sixty-three minutes before you died I was paying for a book at the Housing Works bookstore. I’m not going to name the book because it has no consequence. I left it on the street when we entered the ambulance anyway. I walked out onto Crosby, cold, dark and wet, and while starting to consider the nearest subway I went through a series of inconsequential and unfinished thoughts—about girls, how I’d love a brunette, sharp mind and eyebrows with a pea coat, preferably mustard yellow, about the corned beef sandwich I’d had at lunch, should I be eating less meat, or salt, is it a flaw I don’t want to help out a soup kitchen—that suddenly took off on their own, a perpetual motion machine, and I was the observer of these autonomous reflections, and then I stopped watching the machine and I looked up, and in my most earnest voice I asked myself, silently, for something, anything less solvable to witness. That is when I heard your voice, a pained but dulcet note, down the street, closer to Houston. Luckily I looked around before at your face, noting the absence of people or cars or anything, because once I looked down into you, making the same underwater calculations we make when recognizing the precise ratios and proportions of identity and emotion and change, mental state and virtue, I saw a facial configuration that would be normal if viewed in pieces but together so horrific it evaporated the breath from my mouth, esophagus and lungs, an arrangement so singular I will have only seen it once in my life, four years ago, in my rear view mirror, on my own skin.
Four years before you died I was driving to the bank to get cash, but really it was to do anything. This was during a time I was unemployed, when my bones were looser and my stride slightly shallower. My mind was acting in a way I can appreciate in retrospect—I even try to sit in the glimpses I get today—but back then it had me going through the DSM searching for the same answer I’m sure you know doesn’t exist. And then, with the radio on scan and the leaves of a birch giving way to the sun flooding my retinas looking nowhere where the heart doesn’t beat my head from the inside’s the only place you can’t touch it never again, I was there. I was there until the shrill honk of a Ford brought me out, just in time to slam on the brakes and save my life, and just in time to take me off the path you have been destined to stay on, and just in time to see my reflection, a mirror of your face right before I hit ‘dial’.
I never met you, but I know you better than anyone. Rest in peace, Willis Paulsen.
© Andrew Lipstein 2013
RIP Willis Paulsen was read by Don Carter for the Sickness & Health Show on 6th February 2013