Friday, 11:26 p.m.
“Phil, can you turn the brightness on your phone down?” Dan says, lifting up the arm he’d draped across his eyes to block the light. “We have to be up so early tomorrow for our meeting. I need to sleep.”
Dan turns to look at Phil, where he’s holding the phone a few inches from his face to compensate for the lack of eyeglasses. The glowing light illuminates his face and throws dramatic shadows across the headboard behind them. “You know it’s hard for me to go to sleep this early,” Phil says absently, his thumb sweeping across the screen.
“What are you looking at anyway?” Dan asks.
“I want to find out who the oldest tallest person was,” Phil says. “It looks like most of the people who were like over eight feet tall died in their 20s. But there’s a couple of guys on this list who were over seven feet who made it to their 60s and 70s.”
“What the actual hell,” Dan says. “Why are you looking that up?”
“I read somewhere that taller people die earlier than shorter people because their hearts work harder, and well, you know,” he trails off.
“You mean, we’re both over six feet so we’re just gonna keel over sometime soon? Look, unless you are reading some sort of global, peer-reviewed, scientifically rigorous study on that phone, I am not going to believe any of that bullshit,” Dan says, trying to keep the exasperation out of his voice.
“Mate, this is like the third Friday night in a row that you’ve brought up some sort of death-related topic,” he continues, feeling the familiar anticipation of taking the piss out of Phil take over him, even though he knows he really should be trying to sleep. “Last week you wanted to know what your headstone should say and we ended up having an argument about why I want to be cremated and the grift inherent in the funeral industry. The Friday before that you wanted me to explain why I think that when you die you’re just . . . gone . . . and why you think you’re going to be reincarnated as a tree.”
“There are spirits in trees, if you pay attention,” Phil mumbles, still scrolling on his phone. He finally turns his head on the pillow to look at Dan. “Also, I decided I want my headstone to say ‘Well done.’”
“What, like you’re a piece of steak or something?” Dan asks. “I am not putting that on your headstone.”
“No,” Phil says, finally turning his phone off so that the room is plunged into inky darkness. “I just want anyone walking past my headstone to know that I tried to live a good life, you know? And besides, I think that will make anyone who sees it feel better about their own life. Like, they don’t have to be an astronaut or something, they just have to live a good life according to their own definition.”
“Alright, so you want an epitaph that for the rest of eternity is going to make people who are alive feel like they are good enough,” Dan says.
“Yeah, but I might change my mind about what I want it to say and, besides, it’s not something I need to decide right now,” Phil says as he curls closer to Dan. “I plan to live as long as I can. I really, really like being alive,” he says. “Don’t you?”
Dan is silent for a long moment, listening to the rhythm of their inhalations and exhalations. “Most of the time I really like being alive,” he says. “But then sometimes, some of the hard times, I just think life would be easier if I didn’t exist. Not even dying exactly, but just not existing. Disappearing. Haven’t you felt that before?”
“No,” Phil responds immediately.
“Oh,” Dan says, feeling shame spike in his gut. So he says it out loud. “That makes me feel bad, like I’m a bad person for not always being as happy about life as you are.”
Phil puts his palm on Dan’s stomach and presses down a bit. “Don’t feel bad about your thoughts,” he says. “We’re different people, with different brains.” He pauses, and Dan can practically feel his sudden shift into shyness. “Do you want me to tell you something that I feel bad about?” Phil says.
“Please and always,” Dan says. “Spill all your terrible thoughts to make me feel better.”
“Ok, so I want to live as long as I possibly can. But sometimes I think that I want to limit the number of people I love,” Phil says. “Like, the more people you let into your heart, the more people you love will die and the more people you will have to mourn. But then if I live to 100 like I plan and I’ve stopped trying to love people, who will care about me then?”
“Well shite, that’s a pretty . . . grave state of affairs, Lester,” Dan says, starting to laugh at his own dumb joke. “I mean, at least one daft scientist out there will care when you defy the odds and become the oldest, tallest man in the entire world.”
The bed is shaking now with Dan’s laughter. “You’ll be the UK’s most decay-dent senile celebrity! It will be your time to shine in the tomb-light! You’ll be splen-dead!” he shouts, gleeful.
“Oh my god,” Phil says. “I think I’m actually going to murder you. I’m going to chop you up and toss you into the Thames.” But he’s laughing too as he stretches his body out alongside Dan’s.
Friday, 5:03 a.m.
Phil jerks awake to Dan shouting, “Fuck a duck!”
He lifts his head from the pillow to squint in the general direction of Dan’s voice. “You ok?” he asks, hearing the sleepy croak in his own words.
“Yeah, just stubbed my toe on the way back from taking a leak,” Dan says at a normal volume as he crawls into the bed. “Sorry for waking you.”
Dan sighs as he settles his head on the pillow. “Now I’m wide awake,” he complains.
“Uh huh,” Phil replies, eyes closed, hoping Dan will stop talking.
Dan fidgets a bit more next to Phil, and then sighs again. “Do you ever think it’s weird that life is made up of so many moments that we are going to forget?” he asks. “Like, how many times have I woken up in the middle of the night that I don’t remember?”
“Dan,” Phil protests. “Please shut up.”
“Just, like, so much of my life is just hours and hours of time passing, that no one but me experiences, and I forget almost all of it. So what’s the point of all of that time, all those little moments?”
Phil groans. “Does it matter? You’ll remember the important ones, the fun times or the big times. No one needs to remember every time they wake up in the middle of the night to use the toilet.”
“But even the moments I remember of my life, that are important to me, that make up who I am, those memories will be gone the minute I die,” Dan says.
Phil gives up and opens his eyes to stare up through the pitch blackness toward the ceiling. “But your memories aren’t just yours,” he argues. “Other people share them, so like if you die before I do, I still will have a lot of your memories in me. If we have kids, and grandkids, they will remember you.”
“Is that the only way your existence matters?” Dan asks. “If people bear witness to your life, and remember it? That’s a stupid reason to have kids, by the way, just because you want someone to be like your personal historian.”
“Oh my god,” Phil says, kicking out under the sheets hoping to connect with Dan’s shin, but only succeeding in lofting the sheets up and sending a draft of cool air across his chest. “I don’t understand your brain sometimes. I love knowing all the details about my family, even about the great-great-grandparents I never met. It makes me feel like part of something, like this big chain of lives that are part of me. All those memories make me feel more alive. You know how nostalgic I am. I’m even nostalgic for people I only know from photographs. I mean, I hardly know anything about them, but I have a few scraps of memories passed down and that matters to me. They matter to me.”
“How far back in your family do you know the names?” Dan asks. “Four or five generations? Well, we’re in England, so you probably have a chart that goes back a few centuries showing you were related to some syphilitic earl. But still, it’s like that quote that says that we die twice: once when we stop breathing and then again sometime in the future, when it’s the last time anyone says our name. Then after that no one ever remembers us, or knows we even existed.”
“What are we even talking about,” Phil whines. “Your legacy? Is your life right now only actually real if someone three hundred years from now knows that you got up to pee in the middle of the night and kept your very irritated boyfriend awake for thirty minutes having a positively asinine conversation?”
“Maybe,” Dan says after a moment. “I just don’t understand the point of this sometimes,” he says, and Phil can feel rather than see him gesturing out toward the room with his hands. “Why exist if none of it will matter eventually? That bothers me.”
“I know it does,” Phil says quietly. “I don’t have any answers for you.” They are hushed for a long moment, while the faint sounds of the morning’s first birdsong float in through the open bedroom window, and then Phil rolls over and shoves at Dan’s shoulder. “Look, I’ll make sure to include, oh, a wee number of things with your name on it in the Phil Lester Travelling Archival Museum of YouTube Ephemera that I’m plotting, ok?”
“Well thank god for that,” Dan says, “if it means getting your colossal collection out of our closets.”
Phil can just make out Dan’s shining eyes. “Don’t laugh at me, you idiot,” he says, shoving again at Dan’s shoulder. He flops back on his pillow with a frustrated grumble. “Damn you, now I have to pee.”
Friday, 2:47 a.m.
“Did you remember to turn the light off in Norman’s tank?” Phil asks, as he pulls the sheets around himself. “We don’t want to mess up his sleep cycle.”
Dan grabs a handful of fabric and tugs, knowing that Phil will steal all of the sheets if Dan isn’t aggressive about keeping some on his side of the bed.
“We’re giving that fish such a swish life,” Phil says halfway through a yawn, his hand reaching out under the sheets to search for Dan’s hand, and when he finds and clasps it, giving it a squeeze. “I can’t believe we’ve had him for almost a year. We’re all dying.”
“Hmm,” Dan agrees, his mind suddenly catching on a memory that washes across him.
“Media vita in morte sumus,” he mutters.
“What?” Phil says. “Are you speaking in a fish language now?”
“Latin,” Dan says. “It means ‘in the midst of life we are in death.’ I heard it at my great-uncle’s funeral years ago. Must have stuck with me.”
Dan rolls onto his side, keeping their hands linked under the sheets. He runs his thumb against Phil’s skin. “Did I ever tell you about the day he died?” he asks, feeling his heartbeat kick up.
“Nuh-uh,” Phil says, and he rolls onto his side as well so he’s facing Dan, though they can’t really see each other, enveloped as they are by dark. “Tell me.”
“I was 15 and he was in his late 80s,” Dan starts. “And I didn’t know him very well. We didn’t see him often. But I liked him and he liked me. I loved him. He was really quiet, barely spoke. He was a life-long bachelor, but whenever I visited he always listened to me and paid attention. He made me feel important. He liked to show me his coin collection.” He pauses. “He smoked a pipe and I loved the smell of it. He taught me to play cribbage. Every time I say we’re ‘level pegging’ in a gaming video I think about playing cribbage with him.
“When he was dying, the whole family went to the hospice center to see him. He was barely conscious, and we all took turns sitting next to him to say goodbye. When it was my turn, I touched his hand and he grabbed it and wouldn’t let go.” Dan stops and swallows, and brings his other hand up so that now he’s cradling Phil’s hand in both of his own.
“I got scared. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. He was agitated and making strange noises and I just really, really wanted to leave. So I pulled my hand away — I really had to pry his fingers off of me — and I just left the room and went to the hallway. Didn’t even say anything to my mom or anyone, just walked right out. And then a few minutes later he died.”
“You’ve never told me this,” Phil says. “And I know all of your stories.”
“I’ve always been ashamed that I did that,” Dan says. “That for some reason he wanted to hold my hand and I couldn’t do it. It freaked me out enough that I didn’t even tell him goodbye or that I loved him. I didn’t say anything to him at all. I regret it so much.”
Phil leans forward and kisses Dan’s forehead. “You were a teenager. You were overwhelmed.”
“I don’t want to have regrets like that,” Dan says. “I don’t want to leave things unsaid just because I’m scared. Or even just because I’m so busy living and being distracted with mundane things. One of us could die tomorrow and what if I didn’t say the important things?”
“Babe,” Phil says softly. “It’s ok. You haven’t messed anything up.” Phil untangles their hands and reaches out to trace a finger across Dan’s cheek. “Tell me now. What do you want me to know?”
Dan closes his eyes for a moment, fighting against the tightness in his chest and throat, the hot prickle of tears at the back of his eyes.
“Just, thank you,” Dan gets out. “Thank you so much for this life we have. Thank you for loving me, for putting up with me.” He has to stop speaking to take a few breaths, feeling Phil’s steady eyes on him in the dark. “Thank you for seeing me, for sharing yourself with me. I just feel —,” he reaches out to place a palm flat against Phil’s chest, “I feel sometimes like I have wings, and that’s because of you.”
Phil covers Dan’s hand with his own, and doesn’t say anything for a few beats. “God, Dan, but it’s also because of you too,” he finally whispers, and Dan can hear the pressure in his voice, how he’s struggling to get the words out, and he wonders if Phil is crying. He’s glad that it’s dark and they can’t see each other. Their voices feel like a thread connecting them, like they are the only two people in the world right now, trading confessions after midnight.
“You know death scares me,” Phil says. “But it’s not so much because I worry about what happens after you die. It’s because the world is all I know, it’s everything. You’re a part of that everything.” He taps against Dan’s hand on his chest, once, twice. “You’ve made my heart bigger. I’m more awake because of you. I see more beauty, and even more pain, because of you. This life is so worth it. And that’s good. We’re good,” he says, his voice deep and threaded with faith.
“Yeah, we’re good,” Dan whispers back.
The quiet settles around them, but it’s not a heavy silence; instead it has the untethered, weightless contentment of being inside a boundless space. “Good night,” Phil eventually murmurs. “See you in the morning.”
Dan closes his eyes. “Yeah,” he says, feeling his body sink into the oblivion of sleep. “See you in the morning.”