The Most American Thing I Could Do is Die
In eighth grade, I took the bus home from school every day and got dropped off at the route’s last stop. Those of us who had made it this far never really talked, so when we found the body on the sidewalk, we spent a few minutes ignoring it until Kiana Paz said, “He’s asleep, right?”
It was rare to find homeless people in my neighborhood. Mostly walled-off by cul-de-sacs, our foot-traffic was limited to old white people power walking around the block at seven every morning and younger white people walking dogs at seven every evening. Also my mom, doing both, but not while white. This man did not seem to fit into either of these groups: dressed in dirty clothes and accompanied by plastic bags and a backpack, I could not tell how old he was. Sunken eyes, wrinkled, sun-damaged skin, frail. I didn’t know if he was actually homeless, but he looked it.
By then, the bus had driven off and we were still waiting for our parents. The high school we shared the bus line with was on break, and so we’d arrived an hour earlier than usual. I looked at Kiana Paz, and then I looked at the man on the sidewalk. He had to be asleep. Why? Because people don’t die on the street here — people don’t live on the street here. We stared at the body, waiting for it to move, imagining the rise and fall of his chest. Nothing. Then, a maggot crawled out of his eye. Somebody called the police.
I like to make jokes about being God because there are many occasions where I believe I should’ve died, but did not. At 5, my parents’ 200-pound television toppled over and stopped just inches short of my head, restrained by one cord that had remained plugged into the wall socket. At 7, I was tested for 30 different allergens and positive for 26 of them. At 12, I discovered that I suffer from a rare condition called exercise-induced anaphylaxis, where any sort of cardio could trigger a lethal allergic reaction. At 14, I flipped my bike over while riding down the side of a mountain, landed on my head, and kept rolling. At 15, I went open ocean diving in an area with a heavy shark population, and unexpectedly got my period on the boat ride out. I got in the water anyway, but did not get mauled. Then there were the cancer scares, the rape, the cancer scares again. I overcame. Somewhere along this series of events, I decided that I could not die because I had not died before, but really, anyone can say that.
I’m used to almost dying so I thought I’d be used to seeing it happen to other people, but it’s not the same. Leaving early is easy; being left behind is worse. The summer I was eighteen, I lost someone every week. The senior home I had worked at for three years shouldn’t have been a surprise: put a bunch of old people together with nurses that work at multiple facilities, and of course there’s gonna be an outbreak.
I watched, almost gleefully, as the news reported on the death of Fred, an esteemed cinematographer who had once grabbed my hand and shoved it into the front of his adult diaper towards his flaccid penis on the way back to his room from lunch. I was fifteen, and he wanted a handjob, but the elevator doors were opening before I realized what was happening, so I left him with a nurse and went to wash my hands, and wash them again, and sanitize, and then put on gloves.
Fred died and I posted pictures on Twitter to celebrate, but when I read the articles, I found that they had listed the names of other residents who had passed: Beth, who once showed me her handwritten poems; Roger, who lent me his DVD of Rebecca because he loved the movie so much; Louise, who stole dishes from the dining room and subsequently broke down weeping when I attempted to retrieve them. “Nobody ever comes to see me unless they want something,” she said, while I collected six wine glasses from around her room. “Will you come visit me for something besides the cutlery?”
Everyone was dying and I couldn’t leave my room, still recovering from a four-month bout of pneumonia. I woke up in July to the news that Annie, someone I’d met at art camp when we were fifteen, had overdosed on heroin and died. I checked their Instagram. The most recent post celebrated six months of sobriety.
I knew Annie, but I didn’t know them well. The last time I’d talked about them before their death, I’d been making fun of them with the friend who informed me of their passing. This was also the case for Lauren, a member of a writing group I belonged to, who died suddenly at twenty-five of a heart attack. Before her death I had mocked her most recent piece, retaliation for nitpicky criticism she’d delivered on my writing only after it had been submitted for publication. You couldn’t have known, my mom said. That was true, I guess. But it was always a possibility; I should’ve known at least that.
After I found out about Lauren, I refreshed her Tumblr page daily, waiting for the posts she’d queued to run out, so that I could actually convince myself she was gone. I googled her name and frantically stalked her Instagram to find out what city she had been living in, and eventually discovered her obituary. Laid to rest in a Catholic Church, by her two brothers, loving parents, and best friend. They’d transported her body from Arizona back to Pennsylvania so that she wouldn’t be alone in the cemetery.
I was eleven when Nicole collapsed; now, I’m as old as she was then. Nicole: my cousin, and a star basketball player at her university, until she passed out during halftime and didn’t wake up. Her family had her studied by specialists at thirteen different medical centers up and down California, but nobody knew what was wrong with her. One day, she’d been the healthiest person in the world, and the next, she was mostly dead.
After six years, she woke up, and my devoutly Catholic family praised God for the miracle. In August, she died. We still don’t know why, and the Will of God has stopped being a satisfying answer. We’re Filipino, which is to say that we’ve been waiting for the centuries of rape and slaughter to make sense, but at some point, we all have to stop waiting for a savior that isn’t coming.
I thought I couldn’t die unless I did it myself, and for a while, I wanted to. I knew I would, probably young, whenever I decided to end things. It was my plan B to anything: I can’t buy a gun, but I can buy a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup and lock myself in the bathroom while my throat closes and my vision is overtaken by fat blue inkspills. Death would come along eventually, when the time was right.
When I got to college, I decided that I didn’t want to die anymore. Maybe this was liberal ignorance: life is ugly in Berkeley just like it’s ugly in Northridge, but I never denied that. I wanted to live — in Berkeley — because I could eat blueberry danishes from GBC with my friends between classes and go to the library and not be alone all the time. I wanted to live — anywhere — because of a class I had taken my first Autumn about love, where I dutifully transcribed everything the professor said, including a throwaway “You can disagree with me, but I think there are only two real feelings: love and fear.” I carried this sentiment with me over winter break to sustain myself until spring, which never really came, but still: I didn’t want to die and I didn’t have to. These streets could be my streets, this body could be my body, this heart could be my heart.
Then I got pneumonia in the middle of a respiratory pandemic, right when Americans were getting paranoid. I stopped sleeping and barely kept breathing. I moved home, tested negative for COVID, and struggled not to wake my parents with my coughing. Then I got better, like always. Then I watched everyone die.
After I had nursed myself back to health, I was expected to make something of my time. I worked briefly as an intern for a children’s author, but she sent me an aggressive WeChat message after my ordering her a new office chair was delayed by Nicole’s funeral. So I quit and went to look for a job that paid. I became a census enumerator, walking past all the wide houses in my neighborhood in 110-degree heat, dressed business casual, lugging around the ugliest messenger bag I have ever seen, asking people for their personal information and usually being refused or ignored.
Once, I traveled across one of the big streets bordering my neighborhood to an even more affluent area. The first door I knocked on was answered by a man who looked me straight in the eye and said, “I have a right to defend my property. If you don’t get off my fucking lawn, I swear I will shoot you.” To bolster credibility, he picked up a gun from a table in the entryway.
“Okay,” I said, blinking and waiting for my legs to catch up with my brain. I skittered down the walkway and back to my car, where I opened my Government Issued iPhone 8 and labeled the household as dangerous. My obeying him was not motivated by any sort of innate survival instinct. I don’t really have a problem with the threat of death; the issue is when I’m asked to die on behalf of the United States government.
I spent the rest of my shift canvassing the rest of the neighborhood for proxy respondents and thinking about what would’ve happened if I’d stood my ground. My brain splattered down his cobblestone walkway, my blood splashed across his overdue Fourth of July lawn décor. I wondered if he would call the police, or if the neighbors would dismiss it as a backfired car and go about their Saturday mornings, and even then, what the inevitable 7 pm dog-walking crowd would do when they found me.
A fun fact about Joe Biden is that he has two dogs named Champ and Major. Champ and Major are both German shepherds (one of them benevolently rescued by Joe from a shelter), and under a Joe Biden presidency, first pets will be returned to the White House (Trump has neither cats nor dogs). Another fun fact about Joe Biden is that he received more campaign donations from oil and gas companies than Donald Trump did. A dog’s love really is unconditional.
Joe Biden is better than Donald Trump because he believes in climate change, and for most of the liberals I know, this is enough. Joe Biden is the same as Donald Trump because, regardless of whether or not he believes in climate change, he will not do anything about it. The Washington Post recently installed a countdown clock in Times Square that announces that we have seven years before climate change becomes irreversible — an infuriating and ridiculous move on the part of Jeff Bezos, who owns the newspaper, and whose other company, Amazon, emitted 44.4 million metric tons of carbon in 2018. If we stop climate change before the seven years run out, we have bought ourselves more time to fight with billionaires and delay our loss. If we fail, some experts have estimated that human civilization will be over by 2050. If I had to put money on an outcome, I’d choose the latter: Joe Biden is going to save America, except he was bought by oil companies like a marionette doll, and so he’s actually not going to save America from anything except mean Europeans on Twitter who genuinely think their countries are less racist.
The Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration estimates that, by 2050, “one billion people would be forced to attempt to relocate from unlivable conditions, and two billion would face scarcity of water supplies. Agriculture would collapse in the sub-tropics, and food production would suffer dramatically worldwide.”
It should be incentive to change, but it’s not: America loves business as usual, and why wouldn’t they? Business as usual means coups in Bolivia so Elon Musk can mine for Lithium, and funding the Azerbaijan war on Armenia so Chris Sununu can mine for gold. Business as usual means killer cops, a $7 minimum wage, and a military that preys on the student debt crisis here so it can rape and kill abroad. Joe Biden’s central campaign point was the championing of normalcy: he will take us back to pre-Trump America, where our presidents commit war crimes more quietly and our senators can pass pro-business, anti-environment legislation, and anyone who has the privilege of living some distance away from the verge of death doesn’t have to think about politics again until 2024 when the Nevertheless She Persisted Kamala for President merch drops. Thank god we can go back to brunch, and our government can continue its assault on the American People unnoticed.
I have always known distantly that the end of the world was coming, and probably in my lifetime. But the combined force of six months of grieving, a pandemic, and a $14 billion smackdown between two geriatric evils has forced it into the center of my mind, just when being alive became worth the effort.
Now I think again about what my mom told me after Lauren and Annie died. You couldn’t have known. But I did. America was always going to bring about the end of the world — death is just in our nature. There will either be a habitable planet, or there will be the United States, but our history of coups, militarization, and imperialism have made it unfathomable that the United States of America could ever be destroyed. If we ever were beatable, they wouldn’t have let us get away with all of it.
It’s embarrassing to say, but I thought it was up to me. I thought if I didn’t kill myself, I wouldn’t die until I got old, and then I could grow up and cook dinner for my children and go to the shore on the weekends and carry an umbrella around in case it started raining on my way to the library. But here’s America’s heart: there will always be a revolution and the revolutionaries will always be strung up and shot. There will always be a starving man on the street and he will always die unnoticed. There will always be people trying to save the world and they will always be met by men with money and militarized police. Compost won’t mend the hole in the ozone layer, and my life can’t stop my death.
Since Joe Biden won, I’ve started wondering how I might die. I have weak lungs, so bad air pollution could definitely induce a lethal asthma attack. I’m allergic to everything, so when most of our staple crops can’t grow and the ecosystem collapses, I might just starve. California might catch on fire or be swallowed by the ocean, or maybe COVID will never go away, and I’ll die in a hospital bed while saying goodbye to my parents over FaceTime because they can’t visit me. Maybe it’ll be a group FaceTime, and I can loop in my friends too. Maybe the wi-fi in the hospital will be really shitty, so my mom will bid me farewell behind the curtain of the poor connection screen.
I come from a long line of people who have had to ask America for permission to survive. My great grandparents begged U.S. soldiers not to waterboard them with fire hoses; my Lola and Lolo spent years waiting for those same soldiers to intervene after the Japanese bomb squads arrived in their village; my mother’s hometown had been so destroyed by centuries of imperialism that she didn’t have a future there, and becoming American herself was the only real option. All that begging, and destruction, and humiliation, only for the U.S. to end their bloodline.
If there’s anything this summer has taught me, it’s that I don’t wanna be around when the world actually ends. I’ve seen enough death and inherited even more. When 2026 arrives and we haven’t figured out how to stop the human race from meeting its slow, inevitable doom, I don’t plan on sticking around for much longer. Either climate change knocks me out early, or I take myself off the board. I have no interest in waiting around to be dealt my fate while my liberal family implores me through Facebook posts to vote.
I have to die young—there’s no other way around it. I have to die young, and there’s no other way around it, so I will do it myself—with a knife, a carefully chosen step, a Snickers bar—because anything is better than being martyred by a godless country, in an era where everyone else is too busy dying themselves to care.
*all names have been changed