I Think I Am Starting to Fear Death
Don't get me wrong by the way, I'm not miserable or afraid or anything. It's just... It's a new sort of feeling.
Written by: Andrey Kurenkov in collaboration with ChatGPT
Illustrations by: Andrey Kurenkov with MidJourney
Narration by: Andrey Kurenkov with BeyondWords
I and Cassy sit at the upstairs bar of Cafe Stritch, one of our old favorite spots, reminiscing. The live jazz from below is less loud here, so we can finally talk without yelling. It's January 12th, 2023, 10pm.
"This may sound weird, but I think I am starting to fear death."
"What? Why? You only just turned 30, seems a bit premature. We're still young." Despite the heavy subject, Cassy’s tone is light and playful, as if she's looking looking forward to one of our drunken philosophical dialogues. She has a hint of a smile playing at the corners of her mouth.
I give her my best ‘just bear with me’ look. "That's the thing though. I turned 30, but I don't feel any more like an adult than when we met in our early 20s. Like, it doesn't feel like there is less to do ahead of me than before. People are getting married, having kids, buying houses. I haven't even moved in with anyone."
"Poor you. You’re way closer to even being able to buy a house than I am. What's making you feel like this now? You turned 30 and felt like having an early start on your midlife crisis? Or do you just feel in the mood to chat about existential dread." Still looking and sounding playful, as before.
"Good one… Really, it only just occurred to me. I mean, we're catching up after a couple of years, but it somehow doesn’t feel like much has changed. We've started new jobs, gone through a few relationships, oh and there was the once in a century pandemic. But talking to you feels the same as when we last met, and I guess I feel like the same person. So, I mean, are we making any progress in life, really?" I am not sure if I come off as contemplative or just drunk.
"Man, way to make things heavy. Typical. I remember you once said - 'I'm not sure if I change as I age, or if I just keep discovering who I am'. You weren’t even stoned. But maybe that's it, we’re still who we were before, just more self-aware."
"Yeah, maybe... Don't get me wrong by the way, I'm not really frightened or miserable or anything. It's just... It's a new sort of feeling. Like when you graduate high school or college, or something. It’s interesting."
"Well, that’s good I guess. But still, enough heady talk. Let's drink, smoke, walk around town. Let’s see if that famous alcohol tolerance of yours is still intact. This feeling the same as it used to is not bad — I miss those times pretty often. We used to to do this all the time, but now it’s only once every year or two, if that. Don’t get me wrong, the fancy dinner double dates were fun, but it’s not the same."
“Yeah, you're right. All that aside, it's great to see you, to see you doing well." We both smile.
"Same to you. Except the fear of death part, I guess."
We sit and contemplate for a while, until Cassy suggests we go outside for a smoke and then head on to the next bar. A few hours later we hug and say our goodbyes. In the morning Cassy is flying off, and I’m going back to nicotine gum and no (less) drinking. I finish my last cigarette, feeling both happy and sad.
Vik and I sit at the downstairs bar of Nihon Whisky Lounge, Cafe Strich having apparently closed a year ago. This place is more upscale than the places we used to go to, not a brick stone in sight, but at least there’s still jazz. It's March 21, 2026, 9pm.
"So, still afraid of death?"
"What? Oh… I haven't thought about that in a while. To be honest, I've been so focused on June lately. She's already one year old, can you believe it?" His tone is filled with amazement and a hint of pride.
"Yeah, it's crazy how quickly time flies with babies. Thanks for making the time to chat, I know life with a one-year-old can be hectic." I’ve been trying to set this up for a while, as I usually have to do with friends nowdays.
“Are you kidding me? It’s nice to have that baby our of my head for once, I’m glad you got in touch. Anyway, why bring up death? Has it been on your mind lately?” His tone is light, but also makes clear he is taking me seriously.
"Nah, not really… But, I was thinking back to that conversation recently. It seemed like you were nervous, like you were behind because of not having moved in with anyone or married or all that. And now here you are, a father and all I achieved was getting a few more exes and a couple more promotions. Suddenly I'm starting to feel like I'm the one behind." I only realize feel this way as I say it.
“Well, you did catch up with the promotions, at least. And your midlife crisis. It all just sort of happened for me. I met someone, we clicked, got married, had a baby. But now that you mention it, I do still feel like there's more ahead of me than before. Doesn't it feel like that for you too?"
"Sure. Except now I am the one bringing up melancholy nonsense, and you're the one making fun of me."
"Well, let's be honest, for all of your teasing you always did like my sad boy side. And you were always secretly a romantic at heart though, same as me."
"Yeah... I guess seeing you reminds me of when we were young, the old bars, the old friends. It's a bittersweet feeling, knowing that a part of us will always be there, even as those things disappear.” I regret steering the conversation toward these sorts of sad thoughts, but it feels good to talk about it.
"Wow, you're really getting deep tonight. I'm supposed to be the one bringing up the heavy stuff. Anyway. I hope that we'll always have these moments of sentimentality and that we'll look back on our 20s and still feel connected to who we were."
"I'd like that too, but I can't help but feel a sense of sadness knowing that nothing lasts forever. That one day, we'll be old and grey, and these memories will be all we have left."
"We're still young, no need to be thinking about that yet. But I know what you mean. At least now we can fear death together, right?" Despite the cheerful way Vik says it, I feel like he means it.
We sit in silence for a moment, lost in our thoughts, half listening to the jazz music. I take a sip of my whiskey, savoring the warmth that spreads through my chest. I hope that no matter what the future holds, I can once more contemplate life with Vik, with jazz music behind us and drinks in front of us, and us side by side.
And just then Vik says —
“You know what? Fuck this ponderous crap. Let’s go have some fun.”
And so we do. We toast to our friendship, just as we will again a few years down the line, in another bar, in another city.
The future will echo the present and the past, as it always will.
And time will move both fast and slow, as it always has.
And we will be both different and the same, as we always are.
And we will feel happy and young, as we do now.
I randomly got the idea for this and wound up writing much of the dialogue within an hour. After getting a lot of it down, I tried to get ChatGPT to generate last bits, but didn’t like what it produced. It’s almost as if it was playing it too safe, coming to a predictable sappy conclusion.
This still helped me though - seeing what I did not want to write gave me a better idea of where to go next. Later, I realized the idea of having dialogue with no descriptive text didn’t quite work, and it did a pretty good job of revising the story to have that.
By the way, this is not particularly auto-biographical or reflective of my own feelings. It’s more like a conversation I could imagine myself having one day with one of my old friends, if we are both unusually sentimental and drunk. Really, I think this is less a story about fear of aging or death or whatnot, and more about the special kind of bond old friends have. People say to live in the present, but isn’t it the that past that gives it meaning?
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