He ingests small doses of medicinal poison every six months to kill the parasitic worms lodged in his intestines. He feels a painful jolt each time at the precise moment of holocaust when the tiny interlopers begin to thrash miserably in his guts in their final death throes. It doubles him over or twists him momentarily within his nest of sweaty bed sheets. Once, he could have sworn he felt an attempt at escape in there as the parasites wound through his digestive tract in a futile flight towards survival.
Even his daily bowel movements, firm in consistency and wristwatch-reliable in his home country, alternate here between miry sludge and broken, jagged flotsam and arrive irregularly and unannounced. In his mind, he populates actuarial tables, calculates the odds that the death seed has already sown itself inside his colon. He imagines worst-case scenarios, protracted suffering, rotting from the inside out. But then he visits home for a few weeks and his system is rebooted to its defaults, his stool familiar and unremarkable, the cycle reset to commence once more.
On nights out, he drinks what is almost certainly a lethal neurotoxin to achieve drunkenness, consuming just enough of the indeterminate liquid not to die or go blind. One morning, he awoke with his eyes glassy and his vision unfocused and supposed he’d spent the previous few hours unconscious but with both eyelids open wide. Similarly, he can’t begin to imagine what his daily meals actually consist of but can only assume that rumors of fraudulent ingredients and animal sources and of frying oil dredged up from the sewers and reused might occasionally be true. If nothing else, this would explain the parasites.
Over time, it’s all taken a toll. His body has grown large and doughy in his years abroad, his infrequent trips home insufficient to undo the accumulated damage. His frame has become unwieldy to maneuver, an awkward lumbering mass. He’s become negligent in his ownership and maintenance of self, lethargic in the face of any attempt at setting things right. His decline is almost entropic. Sometimes he thinks of leaving the house for some physical activity but then finds that the air outside is poisonous. Out there, it’s like breathing in death. Once in a while, he stands in his kitchen and does diagonal standing push-ups on the white formica countertop until his pectorals ache. Less frequently, he lies in his bedroom on his soft mattress and attempts something like leg lifts to strengthen his abdominal muscles. Often, he sits in stasis on the sofa all weekend eating restaurant takeout.
He imagines another self, one who stayed put at home and never left. A self who got a steady job in his hometown and lived the kind of unremarkable life that was his birthright. A wife, children, a nice suburban home with an open floor plan and a deck out back for grilling. Health insurance and a respectable retirement pension. A family phone and data plan so the kids can coordinate rides home from sports and afterschool activities. A kitchen pantry stocked with non- GMO food from the local megastore. A refrigerator full of organic produce from the weekend farmers market. A few dollars set aside here and there for the annual family vacation. Regular, productive bowel movements every day, week, year.
He imagines this other self going for pre-dawn three-mile runs before work and after-dinner strolls around the neighborhood as the sun is setting. When he walks, he prioritizes his tasks and sets next-day meeting agenda action items. But maybe sometimes he stares in his neighbors’ windows as he passes by and hopes fleetingly for some voyeuristic thrill: a wife and mother or teenage daughter in some stage of undress, bare breasts backlit by a bedside lamp. Maybe sometimes he stops and stares into the woods just behind the corner lot and feels a primal stirring, and it’s all he can do not to howl.
He imagines this other self having great rapport with his coworkers and hilarious, long-running inside jokes but then never socializing with any of them outside of work. And never catching up with his old college friends or bringing his wife’s famous beer cheese dip to poker night or getting out of the house on Saturday morning for an early tee time. And spending every night on the couch alone after his wife and kids have gone to bed drinking bourbon and browsing online pornography on his tablet computer. Maybe his predilections have escalated after years of habitual viewing, and watching one man and one woman have genial intercourse just doesn’t scratch the itch anymore. Maybe he seeks obscure niches now. Maybe this self’s preferences now run brutally violent or illegal.
He imagines infinite selves in infinite worlds, some safely at home and some recklessly out in the world somewhere. Some are healthy, and some are sick. Some live pitiable lives of solitude while others surround themselves with loved ones. Some have heroic sexual adventures and indulge every desire while they’re still young and appealing, and others masturbate resentfully every morning in the shower picturing some acquaintance or colleague they’ll never work up the nerve to talk to. Some blow their brains out; a smaller number take their families with them. Some seem to have figured it all out or have at least developed effective strategies for not thinking all the time about oblivion.
He wonders if the home selves fare any better than the away selves, if the only difference is the matter of physical decay versus moral decline. He tries to draw conclusions after evaluating all the possible paths and choices and identify the optimal version of his life, but in the end it’s all impenetrable and arbitrary. It’s all noise.
In the morning, he swallows his biannual dose of poison to kill the worms and then braces for impact. When the moment comes like a convulsion, he hurries to the second bathroom and defecates violently into the toilet bowl and then sits there hunched over and wincing. When he’s finished, he stands at the sink washing his hands and looking out his bathroom window at the grey, uniform peaks of commercial and residential towers and sees rays of sunlight beginning to break through the noxious urban haze. Maybe he’ll go for a walk this afternoon, he thinks. Maybe he’ll cook his own dinner today instead of ordering greasy takeout for a fifth night in a row. Maybe he’ll take some responsibility for this self and treat it better today.