4.06 / June 2009

The Rest of Your Life

listen to this poem

In an hour, you’re scheduled to learn about the rest of your life.

It’s all mapped out: a twenty-minute drive north through the winter sleet. A left turn at the looming hospital building. Before entering, you refresh your lipstick in the parking lot. This is going to be the kind of day you will look back on, thinking, at least I should’ve worn some lipstick.

The elevator crawls to the fifth floor. You are glad to be alone in this mobile box. Out of habit, you tilt your head back and wink at your reflection in the mirrored ceiling. Partly for luck, partly in case the mirrors are two-way. Somebody must work elevator security, staring at small grainy screens, at the tops of joyless people’s heads. All dandruff and baldness and crooked parts.

At the fourth floor the car halts. The door swooshes open, and a kohl-eyed woman wrapped in multicolored scarves jingles inside. Her stooped, aged body is made of silks and linens and elaborate wraps. You feel overdressed and stuffy in your black wool coat and gray scarf. She is from inside, you are from outside. The elevator resumes its upward trajectory until the woman extends a bangled wrist and pushes the STOP button.

“You come here to find out something,” she says in a thick, hard-to-place accent. “Why is it you want to know?” She is petite. Her long dark hair has surprisingly little gray. Her skin folds and twists, making shadows across her face when she gives a quick, upward wink at the mirrored ceiling. For this, you trust her. You take a deep breath, just like the doctor who examines your chart. (Or your body. Same difference.)

“I want to know whether I’m—“ you begin.

“No,” she interrupts. “Not what. Why?”

The accent could be Romanian. She could be a Gypsy. Or a stage actress. A paid participant in an elaborate prank, in cahoots with a cameraman hidden behind two-way ceiling mirror. There are fingerprints on the edges of the glass.

“Can you tell me? Do I get to ask three questions? Or make wishes?”

“Already you ask three questions,” she chastises. “And please to come off of it. This is not like the Disney movies.”

She fiddles with the elevator buttons. You are descending. “Better we should go,” she whispers. “That I can tell you.”

The two of you march stride for stride across the lobby linoleum. A man calls out, “Mariska!” But the Gypsy does not turn. She threads her arm through yours, a thin silver bangle pressing into your wrist’s skin. She tightens her grip and twirls you around and around, a maniacal square dance. Beneath her knitted shawl you glimpse the pale green hospital gown. Then the world — the glass doors in front of you, the bank of elevators behind — blurs. No longer do you know what you face.

“Here is the rest of your life,” she says, spinning you. “The rest of your life is here.”

Sarah Layden is the author of the novel TRIP THROUGH YOUR WIRES (Engine Books). Her work appears in Boston Review, Blackbird, Sudden Flash Youth, The Humanist, Ladies' Home Journal, and elsewhere. She teaches writing at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.