It’s happening again.
Its the creepy organ music.
It’s the rich, sugary burn of scorched pumpkin flesh.
Its the shelves of the grocery store adorned in cotton cobwebs and piled high with bags of “fun-size” candy (-something that never made sense to me… why is a ¼ sized candy bar considered fun? What’s FUN about less candy?)
Anyway… caramel and apples are stacked in the same display case in the supermarket, Ouija boards are on sale and department stores are already setting out Christmas decorations.
No doubt about it… it’s October.
As Halloween closes in on us, we as a culture are once again drawn toward the macabre, the creepy and the downright gross. Not surprisingly, I love Halloween. It feels almost like the medical examiner equivalent of Veterans’ Day or St. Patrick’s Day. Suddenly everyone is into the same things I’m into and I feel a little less like a morbid anomaly… but just a little…
I went to see a Halloween circus and acrobatics show this past weekend and it was utterly delightful. From the spiders on the trapeze to the hand-balancing werewolf, every single performer was amazing to behold.
If I had to choose a favorite act I would be tempted to say it was the witch who pulled a rubber chicken out of her shirt, but in truth my favorite act was the contortion zombie. This girl was all done-up post-mortem-like…ragged and emaciated. She staggered onto the stage, groaned at the audience and proceeded to pull off a wide array of freakish moves, including, but not limited to, sitting on her own head.
I howled in nauseated astonishment along with the rest of the audience, my stomach turning along with everyone else’s at the feats of flexibility this girl was performing… but that’s not to say I wasn’t still something of a freak myself… because while everyone else was being blithely traumatized by the performer’s exploits, I was trying to calculate exactly how decomposed your standard dead body would have to be in order for her tendons and ligaments to display that kind of mobility. I mean, you’d have to wait for rigor-mortis to dissipate, and the rate at which THAT takes place is profoundly variable. Furthermore, most bodies would lose the epidermis, adipose and muscle long before the sturdier connective tissues gave out. Even then, you’d have to account for ambient temperature, precipitation, insect activity, exposure, body mass index and on and on and…
(In case it wasn’t obvious, this morbid anomaly here was dateless for this function)
Zombies have really enjoyed quite the revival over the course of the last 10 years (get it?). I like it. It’s nice to see them getting some work again and broadening their horizons.
After George Romero’s whole, “Night of the Living Dead” heyday In the 70’s, there was something of a dead calm throughout the 80’s and on into the 90’s for the re-animated. Oh, don’t get me wrong, popular culture was, as ever, enamored of the paranormal. But for a good 20-years, all things trendy chose to bow at the feet of vampires (The Lost Boys, Interview With a Vampire) witches (The Craft, Practical Magic) and werewolves (The Howling, An American Werewolf in London)… probably because the old adage remains true… sex sells. And it’s hard to make a rotting corpse look sexy. And how the hell can a putrefying cadaver ever hope to rival Brad Pitt done up as the romantically tortured Louis… ever suffering the foppish insults of an equally exquisite Tom Cruise a.k.a. Lestat. So zombies took a back seat, and waited. Why not? They had time.
I’m not sure which movie did it… Maybe “28 Days Later” or “Shawn of the Dead”. But as we staggered our way into the 2000’s, sultry, pouting succubi failed to titillate and the ennui of another struggling half-human, anti-hero began to wane even as our Nine Inch Nails albums wore down and even Marilyn Manson began looking a bit too… pedestrian for our tastes. We wanted entertainment, mindless, heartless, pulseless entertainment… and the zombies provided.
But unlike the previous zombie fevers, this time we no longer feared the zombie apocalypse… we hoped for it. Hell, we invited it. I counted myself amongst those who regarded a zombie apocalypse with giddy anticipation. I just knew I would own the unbridled anarchy that would certainly ensue when the dead rose again and we could finally put to use all the driving and shooting skills we had honed while playing “Grand Theft Auto.”
Such an event felt like my own natural habitat. I would be like a duck in water… a kid in a candy store… an arsonist at Burning Man… a cop in a race riot. Nothing would stop me.
My friends and I would frequently discuss where we would meet at the advent of this “disaster”, where we would go once we had assembled, which stores we would loot first, which vehicle we would steal, which weapons to employ… It’s kind of shameful how much effort we put into zombie apocalypse preparation as compared to how little preparation and planning we put into disasters that could actually happen.
I was set to hole up in the local art museum with an arsenal of blunt objects and canned goods at the first sign of zombie-trouble, but I couldn’t tell you how to use a fire extinguisher or what to do in the event of a tornado… I mean the city would shut down a lane of traffic on my usual route to work and I would erupt like a shaken soda bottle.
Anyway… zombies. During this zombie revival, I was dating a guy named Cahuncey (yes, Chauncey… whatever assumptions you’re making about him based on his name are probably right.) Good Ol’ Chauncey was even more enthusiastic about the immanent zombie apocalypse than I was. And he used to play off this character we called “The Dating Zombie”… it was one of those nauseating little inside jokes that couples share… kind of like when another boyfriend and I used to pretend we were dinosaurs and chased each other around his apartment making weird noises that we fancied were dinosaur-ish… He was Veloci-Ian and I was Dilotho-Kate… anyway, Zombies.
Chauncey would lurch over to me with a vacant, twisted expression on his face (even more so than ususal) tongue out and silvery thread of drool oozing from a corner of his mouth. He would heave forward with his arms bent askew, randomly clawing at the air like he was conducting an orchestra of seizure activity… with hands curled up like dead spiders. One leg would be dragging numbly behind him as he convulsed and grunted and groaned like a dying asthmatic buffalo. Once within a hand’s reach of me, The Dating Zombie would start in with the sweet talk… “Yooouuu haaave reallyyyyyy nicssse HAIIIIRRRRRRR” as he pawed at me in a clumsy, flailing attempt at a caress. “Dooo you wannnna come back to myyyyy plaaaaaaaaaaaace AAARGH?” And he would stumble forward, catching my hand in his then he would pretend to be overcome with bloodlust and start nibbling on my fingers… “Brrraaaaainnssss! I love a woommaaaan with BRAAAAAIINS!” It was cute… in a quirky, hipster way. The Dating Zombie… poor, awkward undead romantic.
I’m divorced… which is really weird to say. It sounds so much older and serious than I feel. “Divorced” is for older ladies who wear too much perfume and have lip-stick on their teeth. They roll their eyes during lunch dates with their friends and talk about alimony and child support and their ex-husbands’ mid-life crises.
It’s not really how I imagine myself. But then again, I’m not just divorced. I’m a divorced medical examiner… with cancer… which means I’m a divorced morbid anomaly… with cancer.
Honestly, as I’ve struggled to re-enter the “dating scene” (if that’s what we’re calling it) my attempted interactions with the opposite sex haven’t been too different from the strangled gestures of the dating zombie… I’m almost alive again, after the heart-stopping trauma of separation and divorce. I brushed off the dirt in which my past life was buried and pitched myself ever onward, fumbling and ungainly, half-syllables and drool falling from my lips in equal measure as I attempted to get my hands on something satisfying. Brains are good… as any zombie will tell you, but so is a sense of humor, a nice face, a job and maybe a retirement plan. At the moment, however, I’ll settle for a pulse and a penis. And I insist on both at once. A girl’s gotta have standards.
The problem is, everyone else has standards as well… standards that I suppose aren’t too stringent for most people. But if these standards are the equivalent of a metal detector, I don’t even make it past the front door. As I’m continually exposed to ever more death, I’ve sunk further and further into the quicksand of weird behaviors and habits that inevitably come with near-constant emotional crisis. Some might call it post-traumatic-stress-syndrome… I just call it socially awkward. Either way…
I’ve retreated into the recesses of human interaction and lurk in the unmentionable shadows… a troll under humanity’s bridge… I see the underside of everything and it’s hard to find any common ground upon which to strike up a conversation. I’m a classic bait and switch… I look like a normal woman, perhaps even an attractive one. I go normal places and appear to do normal things, but then I’m approached by a member of the opposite sex and I burst forth with some bizarre comment or question that’s so fucking disturbing that men turn tail and run as though I just sprayed them like a skunk. I should just start farting the second I’m approached. It might actually be less embarrassing.
I was working out at my gym and I’d seen this guy around. He was something of a gorilla, big, hulking shoulders… thick, slab-like arms and hands like anvils. He kind of had that dangling swagger to his upper torso where his biceps, triceps and lats were so overgrown that he couldn’t really put his arms down. Head shaved and a wide, guileless grin… he had introduced himself at some point. I think his name was Joe and he was really impressed with my calves… and as I recall, I looked at him blankly, wondering why the hell this meathead was interrupting my interval. But he seemed nice enough… and it didn’t occur to me until after I was already showered and at home in my own bed that he might have been flirting with me.
The next time I saw him, he approached as I was on the stair-machine and I was too sweaty and out of breath to really say anything… and my attempt at an inviting smile may have seemed more like a pained grimace. But I gave it my best shot and he stuck around long enough to tell me that he was a school bus driver for the local school district… a little fact that made him infinitely more attractive in my eyes. On first sight, I would have pegged him as a car mechanic or construction worker. But hey… this dude worked with kids… which meant he had to be okay with a certain amount of gross talk… boogers and lugies and such. He was probably super patient and, on a more practical level, he had to have passed a pretty vigorous background check. I had managed to gasp out that I was a medical examiner and he hadn’t run away screaming. He hadn’t even done the quiet moment of contemplation as he registered the depth of what that meant. Maybe this could go somewhere… and by somewhere I meant… like to coffee… or to a movie… or somewhere other than to the rack for another set of curls.
The last time I saw him, I won’t say I was ready, but I wasn’t mid-exercise, so my lungs were full of air and I wasn’t sporting a big-soggy sweat-mark on my chest. He waved hello and I meandered over to try my hand at conversation. We exchanged the requisite greetings and such and I asked him how the bus-driving gig was going. He shrugged and grinned then went into an extensive tale about a recent trip to the zoo in which 6th grade pandemonium ensued.
“Have you ever tried to wrangle a bus-load of 6th graders?” He chuckled.
“Heh,” I said in an attempt to jovially identify a similarly complicated situation at my job. “Have you ever tried to wrangle the family of a dead infant?”
Even as the words charged past my lips I felt the choking horror set in… had I really just said that… like out loud and everything?
The question hung there for a moment, and Joe’s facial expression never changed… but there was a sudden shift of the light behind his eyes, like someone had just closed the venetian blinds. Not so much the lights are on but nobody’s home… rather somebody’s home but they have no fucking desire to talk to you anymore. I think a few parting words may have passed between us after that, but I sure don’t remember what they were. It’s hard to imagine which of us was more eager to pull the rip-cord and vacate that conversation. Anyway, you’ll notice I said that was the last time I saw him…
A bit later on, I had managed to get past first base with this one guy who actually seemed pretty into me. Which is to say he kept calling and seemed to have a decently strong stomach. Right up until one day when I was working and he was feeling saucy, judging by the text message I received:
“-Hey pretty lady, thinking about you. Tell me something dirty.”
Now I’m 40 years old, and I am one generation too far gone from this whole “sexting” phenomenon. Which is not to say that I’m not game for it… I’m just no good at it. Because, glancing at my surroundings, I shrugged and sent him the dirtiest thing I could think of…
“-Okay, right now I’m standing over the decomposed corpse of a woman who hasn’t been seen or heard from in a month and a half. She’s covered in maggots and melting into the carpet.”
I’d give you his response, but I’m not sure how to quote dead silence. After an uncomfortable amount of empty air passed between us, I figured maybe I should … say something?
“-Ummmm, that’s probably not what you meant, was it? Damn… I suck at this.”
“-Yes… you do…”
Clearly we didn’t have enough in common and it’s hard to say who ghosted whom on that one. But I wish him all the best in his ongoing quest for a girl who’s good at the “me-so-horny-talk” and a little bit more forthcoming with boob-shots.
But joke’s on him because I can be sexy … I can totally be sexy… I just have to concentrate and watch my mouth. I was sexy enough to get one rollicking stallion horizontal with me and I don’t mind telling you that I was a goddamnned singing siren sweeping him into my stormy shores… peeling his clothing off with deliberate, lingering sensuality… eyes locked in… caught breath gasping in every gesture… I was a necklace of golden, gleaming girl wrapped, fingers clenched around his neck like no one I was identity lost in the moment… right up until I began sliding his jeans down his hips and the purely analytical part of my brain… the one I had hog-tied in the corner … well she managed to wrestle her gag loose and piped up at the worst moment possible.
“Wow,” I heard myself say. “Taking a guy’s pants off is so much easier when they’re ALIVE!”
In my defense it’s totally true. You have no idea how difficult it is to pull the trousers off a 400lb dead guy in full rigor mortis until you’re all by yourself in the autopsy suite and it’s your job to prep the dude for his post mortem exam. And fortunately, my paramour laughed it off even while I was choking on my own tragic timing.
I really liked him… Hell, in pretty short order I loved him… loved him like my body loved breathing… wanted him like a song wants to be sung. And over the course of the following year many of my professional glitches faded, shriveled and crumbled away like a lost leaf in late autumn… but they shouldn’t have. I shouldn’t have drowned out the ominous underscore of unease that set in like the subsonic hum of electricity right before you’re hit by lightning.
The first time he yelled at me, the lights of my heart went out like an overloaded circuit breaker, everything stopped right down to my cells as each nucleus stared in disbelief as the monster of his rage crawled out from the dark corners and roared… for coming home late because a movie was longer than I thought it would be. Saying that he was complicated was like watching the nightly news sanitize a natural disaster that just blasted through your front door. I found myself rearranging my life to accommodate his “bipolar episodes” the way you rearrange your living room to fit your new roll-top desk in there- before you’ve come to terms with the fact that it’s just too damn unwieldy and it just doesn’t belong.
The manic, unparalleled joy coupled with the spirit crushing devastation of inexplicable, spinning conflict… left my instincts strangled with barbed wire… struggling to get free and run for help. Something was wrong… something was terribly wrong but defining it was like trying to put a leash on a forest fire. His wrath was like a flash flood from the downpour in his head and though I never saw a drop, I was still in its path and utterly naked except for my breath, my blood and all my best intentions hanging off of me like the jewelry I’d be buried in.
I remember the first time I saw him do a line of cocaine like helping himself to the dish of mints on the coffee table, it’s no big deal… it was no… big … deal. Then he told me about how our conflict drove him to try crack for the first time. I never saw him do heroin, but that didn’t stop him from saying it was because I was just so goddamnned difficult to be in love with…
I’m not saying I was blameless. No one is. And my inadequacies, insecurities, selfishness and character flaws are always before me… but under his scrutiny, I became infected with blame and everything I touched turned to rot… because he said it did…
I began seeing myself at work… everyday… in the face of the woman who’d come home to find her husband had drank himself to death. In the story I was told about how the dead woman laying in front of me had broken up with her boyfriend and was in the process of moving out when he walked up behind her and opened fire with his glock.
In the overdoses, the suicides. I saw my almost undeniable destination played out before my eyes every day…devastated parents, destroyed spouses, anguished children…. All left to clean up the mess of a man who sounded eerily similar to the one sleeping next to me. And I knew better… if anyone knew better, I did. I was my own Cassandra… so irrefutably certain of the outcome and still I didn’t believe the truth of my own experience. I investigate death every day, you’d think I could see it coming.
It happens slowly… it happened to me… slowly, as slowly as a summer sunset and the next thing you know you’re completely in the dark… alone… except for him… there with you… with a gun in his hand and he’s holding it to his head saying, “Tell me again that you’re breaking up with me…”
He claims he pulled the trigger but the gun jammed.
Just like I pulled the trigger… several times, desperately trying to execute the shuffling corpse of a relationship that just wouldn’t die… like a zombie… I should have aimed for the head instead of the heart…
The last time I walked away from him I lay down in that grave, pulled the earth over me and wished for oblivion. I stared at the ragged remains of myself, bewildered and empty, waiting for the almighty nothing to overtake me…I lived years through each hour… eons through each day. I aged lifetimes with every fucking second of loss and sorrow… But inexplicably I stirred, I squirmed, I writhed, I rose again. My hands groped for the surface as I climbed the ladder of my own spine out of the quagmire.
And I stagger ever onward, the dating zombie… now two deaths deep into the afterlife. Slower, quieter dragging one foot after the other as my post-apocalyptic hereafter once again falls into place around me. There’s no one to hear, and I don’t know if it’s practice or it’s habit… but every now and then, I’ll find myself veering off toward one distraction or another , I’ll catch a glimpse of myself in a broken window… I’ll drift a fleshless hand through my matted tendrils of hair…and grunt:
“I’ve always wanted to learn to play Mortal Kombat…”
“Your mother’s a much better cook than I am”
“Would you like to come upstairs for a night-cap?”