By Kimi Eisele
On your journey you will come to a time of waking. The others may be asleep. Or you may be alone.
One summer I watched 60 hours of the zombie apocalypse on Netflix. Four seasons of The Walking Dead. Then, because I couldn’t wait six months for the next season, I watched that on free TV web sites, which, because they were illegal, shuffled on and offline in mysterious fashion.
I’d make popcorn and pour myself a glass of wine then move the laptop to the coffee table and sit and eat and drink and watch. Usually two episodes in a row. Sometimes three. Or four.
Watching between two and six episodes of a show at one sitting is considered “binge-watching,” according to a 2014 Netflix survey. Of those surveyed, 61 percent reported binge-watching regularly, and 73 percent said they felt good about it. Binge-watching was a better way to experience a serial drama; it offered a welcome refuge from modern-day, busy life.
I didn’t watch to escape busyness. I was trying to recover a mangled heart and didn’t know how else to staunch the bleeding.
We met online. The dating site had hundreds of questions you could answer to help match you with potential, like-minded mates.
Do you like oral sex?
Would you consider dating someone of a different race or ethnic background?
In a certain light, wouldn’t nuclear war be exciting? For which you could choose: Yes, it would or No, it wouldn’t.
If you sleep with someone on the first date you run the risk of invasion. And of disappearance.
In a certain light, wouldn’t nuclear war be exciting?
Yes, it would, we both chose.
The zombies on The Walking Dead aren’t called zombies; they’re called “walkers” or “biters” or “rotters.” They don’t walk. They shuffle. They clack their teeth. Their bodies are in various states of decay. They breathe with raspy tones. They reach and paw. Blood and entrails coat their mouths.
People become zombies a few minutes after they die. It’s called “turning.”
Everything is really fucked up in the zombie apocalypse. Whole towns are vacant. There’s no gasoline. You have to hunt animals or break into abandoned homes and hope you find some packaged foods, or at least a giant can of chocolate pudding. If you get a serious wound on one of your limbs you’ll likely have to have someone amputate it, which they’ll do with a dull saw. If you want to survive, you have to cozy up to killing.
Cozying up to killing—deading the undead—means stabbing a knife through a zombie’s head, sending a bullet into its brain, or decapitating it with an axe, sword, machete. It’s all about the brain. You have to render the brain non-functional.
This is its own kind of turning.
Binge-watching The Walking Dead also means cozying up to killing. Meaning you have to be able to stomach seeing and hearing it on screen. Skin breaking, blood spurting, guts spilling, and all the accompanying slurp-crash-swish-thud sounds.
Mostly I cover my eyes when the teeth sink in or the heads start rolling. The gore irritates me. These bodies just won’t quit. The shuffling, the teeth, the guts, the bones poking through skin, the bullet holes and disfigurations, the missing limbs, the hunger. The undead are relentless.
On the show, the humans have to beware of not only the zombies, but also other humans. Even as a binge-watcher, you’re never quite prepared for this.
One woman kills two sick people, then pours gasoline on them and lights a match so their virus won’t spread. A little girl who’s gone wacko from all the guts and danger kills her younger sister just to prove she’ll come back to life. Of course, that makes the whacko girl a threat to others, so she gets offed too.
Relentless, I’m telling you.
And yet, if your heart is already mauled, what’s a screen full of guts and hard choices?
I am amidst the cactus waiting for the love of my life to walk by, he texted early on. He was sitting on the front porch of his house. Are you coming?
A few days later, he walked over with a lit sparkler, the yellow embers shooting out from his hand. I thought I knew everything about him.
“Make sure you do something in the world within the first two weeks,” my friend Charlie advised. “Don’t get stuck in bed. You’ll be choked by lust.”
So we went to the new arcade, where all the other adults were going to play pinball because it had been written up in the paper. Neither of us liked pinball that much but it seemed a novel thing to do. A new way to use our hands, our bodies. The arcade was closed. We climbed some stairs and made out against a wall that was really a wire cage. Everything was on fire, and I thought it looked beautiful.
My favorite character on The Walking Dead is a woman with sculpted biceps who survives on her own for a long time by cutting off the arms and mouths of two zombies and leading them around by chain leashes everywhere she goes. They cannot grab her or bite her, and they protect her from the other zombies’ arms and mouths.
That is really all zombies are. Dangerous mouths.
He arrived in me full of promise and power. Everything he said I believed.
He stared into my body as if he had found something. I thought he was in love with the space there, its softness, its wanting. “It’s so beautiful,” he would say. “It’s so fucking beautiful.” I was a pond. I was his pond.
“You should move in,” he said.
“You’re the most beautiful person I’ve ever seen,” he said.
“Do you want a small wedding or a big one?” he said.
“We will grow old together,” he said.
He had an important, save-the-world kind of job. Plus two kids and an ex-wife. There were a lot of demands on him. I had various jobs: teaching, conducting interviews, editing reports, writing grants, writing short stories, seeking an agent. I was hungry. I held my arms out and walked towards him with my mouth open.
Sometimes the zombies invite sympathy. The one without legs, for instance, intent on dragging itself across a field or a parking lot or the whole damn state of Georgia to fulfill its yearning. Or the one hanged in a tree, wiggling around, no way to get down, starving. When you watch the show you want their end the way you want the end of a snake or a rabbit on the highway once it’s been hit by a car. No one wants to be half alive.
When you are falling in love, you think love is unstoppable. You think you’ll continue on down the path of loveliness and foreverness, holding hands. You think there’s no way it will end. After all, the world doesn’t just end, right?
Maybe. Maybe not. What it does is turn.
Delicious gazes and the clearly stated proclamations that match all the imaginary proclamations you’ve longed to hear for so long begin turn to silence, static.
I’m making soup and salad for dinner. Want to come?
Want to go to the lantern festival with me? We could take your kids.
There’s an opening at the gallery this weekend. Wanna go?
Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
The virus was called avoidance. Or intimacy aversion. The symptoms: profuse expression of adoration, sudden fatigue when it was time to discuss anything difficult, inability to form words and sentences during difficult conversations, a lack of acknowledgment or response, a disappearing. So much disappearing.
When you watch 60 hours of zombie apocalypse in a two-month period, you start looking at bodies differently. That woman behind the cash register, how hard would I have to tug on her arm before it severed from her body? That man at the bar, if I reached for his skin and slid my fingers down his shoulder, would the skin come off?
Where are you? Where did you go? Come back. Come back.
The cinematographers on The Walking Dead sometimes get crafty. They pan out, moving away from the ground into the sky. You can see the apocalypse as a bird might. This happens in the very first episode, as the main character arrives in Atlanta, where the zombies are out of control. He hides out in a military tank, while the zombies outside devour his horse. The camera pans out and up, the hungry shuffling bodies filling the frame, getting tinier and tinier and more and more plentiful as the camera pans up. It’s gross.
Relationships would benefit from this kind of cinematography.
A woman I know saw me on the street one day. She was viewing an apartment on the second floor of a building. I was in my car, stopped, with the window down because I was waving to him. He was on his way to get coffee. He came to the car. He reached in the window as I put out my hand. A greeting. The woman told me this some months later. The way he touched me, she said, was uneven. Condescending. Without regard. She could see it from two stories up.
The limbs disengaged. The skin started to come off. He kept making a certain kind of face, a lifted-up grimace in which the lips sucked in and covered the teeth, a kind of lizard smile, but not a smile. More like a retraction.
To survive the zombie apocalypse you have to accept the fact of turning. You have to accept that the dead ones who come back to life are not at all the people they were before. More than one character on The Walking Dead has trouble accepting this. One farmer/veterinarian keeps zombies he once loved as people, his wife among them, locked in his barn. He can’t fathom what it is to kill the dead. He still believes they might change.
But there is no such thing as a relationship with a zombie. They are only hunger, all teeth and limb and blood and rot.
A breakup is its own little apocalypse. In the wake of it, I shuffled around, my brain single-tracked, my arms reaching. I still believed he might change, so I kept looking for him. My dogs on their leashes and me, staggering down the block. Sometimes, like that sad little zombie dead set on dragging itself across the field, I’d deliberately go by his house.
I’d see his truck or I wouldn’t see his truck. I’d see the cactus garden in the front yard. I’d see the light on in the upstairs window. I’d see the ceiling fan whirring around. I’d see myself, below the fan, in the bed, spinning.
I’d consider entering. I had a key. I could have walked in and made tea and sat on the sofa and read a book. Oh, hi love, you’re home. His hand reaching for my shoulder, his mouth reaching for my mouth. But I refrained. I didn’t even go onto the porch.
I’d go into other rooms though. Online. Facebook, Twitter, Google. I’d sit and read things he’d written or that had been written about him. No shoulder. No mouth. It felt miserable, but I kept doing it.
I have a friend who is a cutler, a person who makes knives. He made a knife as a gift for an Inupiaq elder in Alaska, about whom he is making a documentary film. He showed me the knife in its leather holster, which he also made. It is the kind of knife the characters in The Walking Dead wear on their belts or at their ankles. It is the kind of knife they use to kill the zombies.
My friend was telling me about the elder, about whale and blubber, but I didn’t hear what he was saying because I was unsnapping the knife from its holster and then making a fist around its handle. I was trying to imagine plunging it into the skull of a walking dead thing.
On the online dating site, in the comment box below my answer to the nuclear apocalypse question, Yes, it would, I wrote: Not for the annihilation, but to see if people would be nice to each other afterwards, as Rebecca Solnit’s book suggests.
Solnit’s book is A Paradise Built in Hell, an in-depth look at five disasters, from the 1906 earthquake and fires in San Francisco to Hurricane Katrina. Solnit discovers that in the wake of upheaval, people come together in similar ways. As this resident of Halifax, Nova Scotia, hit by a hurricane in 2003, describes: Everybody woke up the next morning and everything was different … There was no electricity, all the stores were closed, no one had access to media. The consequence was that everyone poured out in to the street to bear witness. Not quite a street party, but everyone out at once—it was a sense of happiness to see everybody even though we didn’t know each other.
There’s something kind of magical about this unexpected and community of care. In an apocalypse everyone is fucked. In your common misery, you might be moved to give each other a hand, or a leg up.
A break up, on the other hand, is so damn singular.
Animals prowl. Animals mourn the dead. Elephants do this. Dogs too. A rhesus monkey will cling so fiercely to its dead mother, it is nearly impossible to pry it off. This is called having a hard time letting go. This could also be called not letting a sleeping dog lie. Or: beating a dead horse. Or: grief.
We are all animals.
The truck is there.
The air conditioner is wheezing.
The bedroom light is on.
The truck isn’t there.
The bedroom light is off.
The fan is whirring.
The truck is there.
The light is off.
The truck is gone.
The fan is whirring.
“Here’s a remedy for getting over your ex-boyfriend,” my father said. “Stop thinking about him. Halt all thoughts about him.”
I considered calling my friend the cutler. I needed such a knife.
The worst part of the zombie apocalypse is, duh, the zombies. They just don’t stop. Their hunger is insatiable. And despite their lack of muscle tone, their strength is somehow herculean.
The best part about watching a serial on Netflix is that when one episode ends, the next episode starts in 15, 14, 13, 12 … seconds, which is just about long enough to go to the kitchen and pour yourself another glass of wine.
The worst part of heartbreak is how irreparable your heart feels. You sit at the kitchen table with friend A, then friend B, then friend C. You nod politely when they say, “You’ll get through this. You will.” But then you look out the window through your stupid tears and there’s another one stomping into the yard with its groping hands and its glistening mouth. You think: No, I won’t.
After an apocalypse, those who survive are the ones who adjust and adapt. The survivors of The Walking Dead are those who buck up and do whatever it takes. They make deals, size people up, forge beneficial relationships, use their best judgment, and sweat a lot. Seriously, they are always sweating. Big wet triangles of it down the front of their shirts. I think the sweat helps them stay in the present moment. They do not torture them themselves with the past. They do not lose themselves in longing.
Eventually they all learn to cut off heads.
It might be true that binge-watching is the best way to watch a serial drama. There’s something to be said about saturation. Immersion is its own kind of beauty. And then when it’s done, it’s done. You turn off the television or the computer and you step outside and behold: Cactus blooms! Live Mariachi music in the park! A bright moon!
The same might be said of heartbreak. Eventually, shuffling around in sorrow gets old. And impractical. There’s shit to do. You go a 15 minutes without thinking of him. Then 15 minutes more. Soon you’re up to an hour. You begin to realize that the relationship you’re still longing for was not the relationship you were in: the one you were in pretty much sucked.
In time, you find yourself riding your bike down the street and forgetting to turn your head to look for the truck or squint at the whirring fan. You just ride along not thinking any particular thoughts at all, just pushing on the pedals past the trees and the cactus, getting where you’re going without being snagged on the thorn of a man who for whatever reason retracted the love back into his mouth.
You begin to rejoice in the way your feet lift off the ground. The way your arms swing against your body, they way your skin holds in your organs, the way your teeth do not clack. You delight in the the way your face can easily change its expression, the way laughter can spill out of you, the way it is possible, somehow, to come back to life.
Kimi Eisele is a writer and artist living in Tucson, AZ. Her work has appeared in Orion, FourthGenre, River Teach, Alternet.org, and various anthologies. She is currently completing a novel about love, loss, and adaptation in a post-apocalyptic America. Kimi can be found online at https://www.kimieisele.com.